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Ardent had been back to the Moon Etherium many times since she’d joined the barbarians: trips to visit friends, engage in trade, and store aether to carry back to Try Again. She hadn’t forgotten the pleasure of soaking in the aether, the effortless joy of satisfying every whim with a thought. No drudgery of repetitive tasks, no trudging from place to place on foot, no need to scrape and stretch wisps of aether to make them last and only use it when it was most needed.

But she’d forgotten how much richer the aether felt to affiliates of the Etherium. She’d forgotten the fierce delight of ownership, of warding a place as hers: not just a building she’d made, but a place that could not be trespassed upon.

With so much power already at her command, Ardent thought she shouldn’t feel any need for more. Yes, it was practical to take some measures to protect Mirohirokon, but that was just common sense. There was no reason for it to be accompanied by power lust, by this intense craving, this hyperawareness of him. It felt as if the moon aether inside her could sense his connection to the Sun Etherium, and yearned for the union.

Which could, y’know. Kill him.

He awaited her on the couch, looking at ease, patient, and perfectly trusting that she wasn’t about to channel a lethal tornado of sun aether straight through his all-too-vulnerable corporeal form.

The man was utterly mad.

No fey trusted another fey like this. Her own mother didn’t trust her this much. And Miro didn’t even know her. Crazy.

Ardent sat sideways beside him, one furry leg curled beneath her and the other extended before the couch. She took his hand, swallowed. “I have no idea what this is gonna be like.”

He nodded, met her eyes, and smiled mischievously. “Should be fun.”

She laughed, half-afraid and half-certain that his words were literally true, at least for her. “Yeah. So. I’m gonna start, and then you tell me to stop. About that fast. I don’t want to take any chances. If it’s not enough, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be, we can do it again. Whereas I don’t know how to fix it if I take too much.”

“My lady is very wise,” Miro said. “I am ready when you are.”

Ardent caressed the underside of his wrist. He felt so different from the first time she’d done this, when aether brimmed through him. Now he felt weightless under her touch, empty, but behind that emptiness she could sense a floodgate, balanced and poised, awaiting only a nudge to open it. “All right,” she said, and nudged.


Warmth and light flooded into her, met the Moon Etherium aether inside, and twined through it with the caress of a hundred loving hands. It was—

She stopped, yanking her hands apart, panting from that exertion, from fighting down the yearning to continue. Ardent jammed her fists between the sofa cushions to make sure she didn’t grab him again. Miro had slumped against the backrest, strands of long indigo hair falling over his golden face. His eyes were open, looking at her. She took a deep breath. “You told me to stop.”

“Mm-hmm,” he agreed. “You said I should.”

“Right.” Power hummed through her veins, a sweet siren song, calling for more. “That was smart of me. Good call, me.” She scootched back on the couch, putting some distance between her and temptation. “I hope it isn’t always this overwhelming.”

“It’s a trifle distracting.”

She gave a shaky, nervous laugh at the understatement. “You think? You all right there, sugar?”

“Wonderful. You should do that again. I’m sure that wasn’t enough,” Miro said, straight-faced. He lay limp, completely relaxed against the sofa.

Ardent laughed again. “No, seriously, how are you feeling?”

“Incredible.” He finally shifted to raise his arms over his head, and stretched like a cat, back arched. “As if I’d just received the start of a truly magnificent massage. If channeling for the opposite host is always this good I don’t know why it’s not more popular.”

“I think that the ‘could kill you’ part serves as a significant deterrent for most fey,” Ardent said, dryly. He made a dismissive ‘pfft’ sound and leaned forward, eyes heavy-lidded, smile deeply contented. He did look well, much better than he had after the first time she’d channeled from him. No question, he was crazy, but sure as Love was an Ideal, he made madness look attractive. She reached out to tuck a lock of his hair behind his ear, and he gave her a bewitching sidelong smile. Ardent caressed his cheek, wondered what by all the Ideals she thought she was doing, and retreated again. She cleared her throat. “All right. Let’s see what I can do with this.”

She returned to the table to fetch the collar, and detached the chain from it with a flick of aether before pulling the collar straight. Then she turned it over in her hands, tracing her fingers across it to leave curling paths of aether. She’d never been a skilled enchanter, but over the course of two hundred-odd years of life in the Moon Etherium, she’d learned the essentials and completed a number of different enchantments. Infusing an item with its own supply of aether was the first step.

“You’re going to enchant the collar?” Miro lifted his head to watch her.

“Like you said. You gotta wear it anyway. Might as well make it useful.”

“I like it.” He gave her a slow, sensual smile.

Please stop being sexy at me, sugar. It’s distracting. Ardent didn’t say anything. She was pretty sure he wasn’t doing it on purpose and wasn’t entirely sure he was doing anything at all. It might just be her ancient libido waking up, stretching, and going whoa hi remember me? It’s been too long! It hasn’t been that long, she told herself.

Twelve years.

Yeah, and that’s not that long. In the grand scheme of my life. Go back to sleep, I’m busy. She concentrated on the collar and finished the infusion, nerves still humming with aether. She set the collar down to go over the pattern of a port in her mind. Without engaging one, she remembered each step of how it happened and analyzed the process. Ardent took the collar to the center of the suite, beside the spiral stairs, and traced a pair of runes in glamour in the air: one for herself, one for castle. She curled the collar around the runes and let it hang in the air, tracing the same runes at the compass points of it. “What triggers do you want, sugar? I was thinking a threefold one: either snap your fingers on both hands, or click your heels twice, or say ‘home home home’. Ones that you won’t set off by accident, but also where you’d be able to trigger it if someone was trying to grab you or stop you. Think that’d work?”

“I can remember those. Sounds good.” He was draped languidly over the sofa, turned to watch her.

“All right.” She swirled the teleport pattern over the air around the collar, then used a surge of channeled power to fuse the pattern to the collar and bind it to the suite. Ardent felt the pattern wavering on the collar, and clamped down on it with another surge, shaping a net of aether to secure the two together. Blue light flared in lines across the circle.

As the light faded, the white gold circlet dropped from the air. Ardent caught it. “Blight and aphids!”

Miro straightened. “Did it fail, my lady?”

“No, it worked.” Ardent felt aether whisper inside the metal, the lines of enchantment true and strong. “But I’m tapped out again.”

The Sun lord chuckled. “Oh, no. Whatever shall we do now?” She shot him a glower, and his expression sobered. “I shall have to stay close to you, my lady, as we investigate the farms, and take care not to be separated.” Miro rose to join her, his stride as graceful as ever, if not more so: easy and relaxed, not weary. As he stopped before her, he lifted his chin in silent invitation. “I’ve no one to message but you in any case. The other may wait, if you’d rather.”

Ardent secured the collar around his throat. Her fingers trembled. She didn’t feel in control of herself at all, and almost wished it was harder for him, that he would be less tempting. “I think…yeah, that’d be for the best.” Maybe with a little time I can pull myself together again.

Miro dropped his eyes, like the meek obedient servant he wasn’t. “As my lady wishes.”

The satyress crinkled her nose at him, then floated Jinokimijin’s notebook to her hand before they left. Safe as her Etherium apartment was, she still felt better keeping important things on her. She contemplated the notebook, wondering how much she ought to trust Jinokimijin’s notes. Miro might have faith in his father’s capabilities, but Miro was hardly unbiased.

Ardent had never met Jinokimijin in person before, but the man was infamous, even in the Moon Etherium. His grandfather had supposedly possessed the Gift of soulsight. Soulsight purportedly gave one the ability to judge a fey’s worth by sight alone, to read the history of failings and virtues in one’s soul. Jinokimijin’s father had claimed to have the same Gift. Jinokimijin had never said that he did, but the possibility that his line might carry it had drawn the attention of the Sun Queen. She had married him in the hopes of having a child with the same talent.

Then, a few years after the birth of the child – Mirohirokon, apparently, though Ardent didn’t know if she’d ever heard anyone mention the kid’s name – Jinokimijin’s grandfather was stranded in a mortal realm when the fey shard moved on unexpectedly. Then Jinokimijin’s father was proved to be a fraud, who’d gotten by on cleverness and imitation of the grandfather’s prognostications. Some doubted that even the grandfather had really had the talent he’d claimed. Jinokimijin’s child with the Sun Queen had shown no signs of any particular talent, and their relationship soon soured. Before their child was ten, the Sun Queen had divorced Jinokimijin. He became a laughingstock, desperate to regain his lost standing through a series of vain, self-aggrandizing schemes that only humiliated him further when they failed. Ardent felt sorry for Mirohirokon. Whatever his dad had done, it wasn’t his fault. Maybe Jinokimijin had learned something in the forty-some years since his fall from the High Court. The notes certainly looked thorough and methodical. But that didn’t mean they were.

She shook off the train of thought as she realized Miro was still waiting on her. After putting the book in her bag, she took his hand and teleported the two of them away.

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The Moon Queen reaffiliated Ardent with her Etherium personally, and embraced her when the ritual was complete. Miro found that sign of personal affection interesting, especially given the tension between the two fey. Ardent had a string on her queen: thin, but real. Until the queen had offered a slender thread with the reaffiliation, she’d had none on Ardent.

Neither of those compared to the enormous cable Miro had handed Ardent during the court, of course. That was a tangled thing, threaded with contamination from his conflicted motives. Oddly, it looked uglier on her end than it did on his, and was still purer than he’d expected.

Miro felt strangely light, despite the collar on his neck and the new tether on his soul. He didn’t regret that extravagant oath to Ardent: he was confident she would never abuse it. And it had served to convince the entire court of his sincerity. No fey would make such a binding oath in bad faith. Even made in good faith it was all but unimaginable, to place unlimited power in the hands of another. But he’d already placed his life in her hands: what was an oath?

He should’ve been troubled by it: it would be all too easy for that oath to conflict disastrously with his other obligations. In some sense, it probably already did.

After their dismissal from the Moon Court, Ardent ported him to her old home, still intact after all these years.

The main chamber, where they entered, was a round room some hundred yards across, with a domed ceiling. The walls and ceiling looked transparent, providing a lofty view of the chaotic Moon Etherium that sprawled far below their perch in an improbable tower. Miro suspected that only one section of the wall was truly transparent and the rest were glamour. It was unsettling that he couldn’t tell for sure, but the foreign moon aether interfered even with that skill.

“Gimme a minute, sugar.” Ardent put him down and surveyed the room with a sigh. She began walking the perimeter, making gestures of ownership and warding as she went. In one half of the chamber was a network of five empty pools of differing sizes, from eight feet across to eighty. The other half was a living space, with a massive sunken pillow nest at its center, and chairs and sofas of various sizes. To one side of the pillow nest was a library, shelves still full of books, and on the other was a kitchen and dining area. A thick layer of dust coated everything. A spiral staircase came up from the level below the floor and led up to the ceiling and vanished – a strong hint that glamour covered the ceiling.

Miro unfastened his excessively formal jacket, pulling its collar out from under the snug white-gold one Ardent had given him. He placed the jacket across one chair back. Absently fingering the cool metal of the collar, he glanced about the main room. Ardent went through the entire room, then disappeared down the stairs. Miro walked to the wall that he thought was genuinely transparent – it had an oval door leading out to a balcony – and leaned against it, looking out at the strange city, waiting. At length, he heard her hoofsteps even through the plush carpet around them. He turned around to smile at her.

She didn’t smile back. “I’ve reclaimed the quarters and warded them. We should be safe now.” And then: “I release you.”

“What?” But he already knew, before the startled syllable was out: the rope connecting their souls was dissolving.

“From that insane oath you made. Justice!” she swore. “What was that about? Are you mad? Why would you – you don’t even know me! Why would you make a promise like that to anyone, ever?”

Miro watched her soul’s hands, and all the pure strings she held without conscious awareness. Is that why she is owed no warped debts? Does she refuse to retain anything that’s tainted? He closed his eyes. “I needed to convince the court I wasn’t a threat.”

“Well, you did that, at least assuming they’re not scared of crazy fanatics,” she said. He felt her fingers brush his neck, and opened his eyes as she pulled the seamless metal collar apart and removed it. She held the now-open circle in her hands for a moment, then hurled it across the room, sending it skittering over the tiles by the pool. “Those degenerates! Those smug, self-satisfied, degenerate maggots! ARGH!” She punched her fist into the transparent wall, and it trembled under the impact.

Miro tensed, unsure how to respond. “My lady?”

Ardent pivoted to put her back to the wall, then sagged, sliding down until she sat on the floor. “Katsura. She knew, curse her. She knew, and didn’t even tell me.”

“…knew what?”

“They wanted that performance. That whole sick game, just to humiliate you. Not that they care about you, just what you stand for. Sun Host. And I played right into it. Curse them! I should’ve told the whole truth.”

“And had your Queen take the phoenix rose? Do you trust her with it more, now?” Miro crossed the room to where the collar lay.    

Ardent scowled. “No. But I could have told them I was here to intercede on your father’s behalf.”

“With your vast influence over Shadow of Fallen Scent.”

Ardent growled.

Miro bent to pick up the collar. The alloy was almost too soft for jewelry: it bent in his hands. He put it back around his neck and pushed the ends to touch. Without aether, he couldn’t make it seal together the way Ardent had.

When he turned back, Ardent had restored her earlier appearance: a short chiton in place of the elaborate court gown, all the jewelry and dyes gone, her hair a fluffy curly mass held back only by a headband. She’d neglected to change her ears back; they were still fey instead of caprine. “Why are you putting that thing back on?” she asked him.

“Because it will be expected of me while I am here, and I don’t want to forget it.” Miro touched the metal again. “I am sorry to cause you distress, my lady. I’ll take it off.”

Ardent lifted her eyes to his, her look heartbroken. “Oh, sugar. Don’t – don’t apologize to me. None of this is your fault.” She climbed to her hooves.

“I am the proximate cause of your departure from Try Again and your presence here at all,” he pointed out.

“Hah. We could argue that your dad’s the cause of that. And I’m not mad at him, either. Much less you. I’m mad at the Justice-deprived Moon Court. And Fallen, aether desert her. You’re the last person I should be taking it out on.” She crossed the room to him, cupping her hands around his as he held the collar before him. Her hands were still soft: she hadn’t restored their callouses, either. “I’m sorry, Miro. Are you all right? You seem to be taking all this a lot better than I am, and I can’t tell if that’s because you are, or if it’s just your Sun Court manners.”

He laughed, because Sun Court manners did indeed demand equanimity in the face of provocation. Miro tilted his head back to meet her black eyes. “I am fine. I am not humiliated.” He laughed again. “On the contrary, I am vindicated.”

“Vindicated?” She raised full eyebrows at him.

“Indeed! I swore an absurd, overbroad oath to you, confident that you would not take advantage of it. And not only was I right in that, but the first thing you did, once it was safe, was release me from it. You may think me a fool to trust you, but I know: my trust is not misplaced.”

“I don’t think you’re a fool.” She took the collar from his hands, reached with one hand to brush his hair – still longer than he was tall and white-blond – back from his neck. “I think you’re a madman. There’s a difference.”

“I stand corrected.”

Ardent dropped her hand. “Did you want your original form back, or to stay like this?”

“Restored, if you please.” Miro walked back to where he’d left his jacket, and retrieved a homunculus of his original shape from its pocket. He could no longer use it on his own; it was not an enchantment itself, merely a token that stored all the information on what his body should be like. He gave it to Ardent. “Less ostentatious clothing would be appreciated, too.”

She empowered it for him and returned it, giving him back his everyday body. “There’s a spare bedroom downstairs. I reactivated its wardrobe for you, in case you need the fancy suit again. You hungry?” she asked. “I’m gonna make some food. You want aetherfood or real or both?”

“Both, please.” He started down the stairwell.

“Sure. Any preference?”

“I liked the curry and bread you fed me last night,” he called up. The lower floor was divided into a few rooms. He stepped into the one with an open door and a visible bed large enough to sleep a dragon. Its wardrobe had a mirror similar to Threnody Katsura’s, albeit with far fewer options. He stored his current outfit inside, then flipped through the mirror until he found an outfit with a long jacket, trousers, and simple shoes. The jacket was different from Sun Etherium’s – it sealed up the front with a seam, and had narrow sleeves – but it was close enough to look comfortable to his eyes. He opened the wardrobe’s mirrored door, and the outfit waited inside.

When Miro returned to the living space, Ardent had swept all the signs of disuse from it: the pools were filled with water, and the thick dust was gone. Sessile was half-curled in the massive sunken pillow nest, with her mouth open. Aether-carried bags of food floated out of her to stock the kitchen. A curry simmered on the stove. Platters of hors d’oeuvres were on the dining table. “Help yourself.” Ardent was by the stove, gesturing vaguely to the table. A handful of messengers hovered about her, and she had an aetheric surface open to one side. “That’s all aetherfood. Lemme know if you want anything different, sugar.”

He sat and popped one of the nearest confections into his mouth. It proved to be a puff of pastry wrapped around spiced meat. It crunched delicately between his teeth, and melted on his tongue with the characteristic smoothness of aetherfood. “Thank you! It’s delicious. Might I see my father’s notebook?”

Ardent tugged on a current of aether, and her bag floated out of the golem too. It set itself on the table, opened, and the notebook rose from within. “I think that’s everything from you that’s mine, Sessile,” she told the earth serpent golem.

“All right!” The golem brought her great jaws together again. “Do you want me to deliver the rest for you, or are you coming along?”

“I think I’ll let you deliver it.” Ardent took the scrying crystal from Sessile’s nose. “I’ll give you a list of prices to go with your destinations. If anyone doesn’t want to pay that price, don’t make the delivery and tell them I’ll come negotiate with them later. You got all that?”

Sessile nodded, squirming in the pillow nest as Ardent finished setting destinations and socketed the scrying ball back in place. “Uh huh. You can count on me!” She teleported out of the room.

While they spoke, Miro ate another pastry, and leafed through the notebook. Ardent had added some highlights and notes of her own in the margins. He laughed aloud as he read over one of them.

“What?” the satyress asked as she fetched the pot of curry from the stove and brought it to the table.

“Your outrage at the delicacy of the creature.”

“Well, it is absurd. All right, so they can only hatch under natural conditions at least fifty miles from an Etherium, and only in the fey world while it’s overlapped with our original mortal one. They need natural air, natural sunlight, and natural water. With you so far. But then they have to bathe in aether-created rain showers? They need to be fed on an aether-natural hybrid of the plant that hatched them? How does this thing ever survive in the wild?”

“It doesn’t,” Miro said.

“But your dad says it can’t be cultivated?”

“He was unsuccessful in cultivating it, yes. But the phoenix rose stage of the creature’s life cycle is naturally brief. They hatch, they ascend, they fruit, scatter seeds, all in one day. The seeds almost all blossom into firebuds, which will never be a phoenix rose. All these finicky requirements are how you entrap it at the phoenix rose stage, because that’s when they have all the interesting magical-aetheric properties.”

“Huh. So if you stop doing all this now it’ll – what – fruit and seed?”

“No, not after it’s been cultured for several days, not if Fallen is doing it properly. Right now, it would probably just die if it couldn’t get what it needs to remain a phoenix rose. In a week or two it’ll move out of needing most of the specifics.”

“Mm-hmm. So we’d better find it fast.” Ardent dished up curry for both of them, and offered a basket of flatbread. “Didn’t have the patience to bake real bread, I’m afraid, but the aether version’s still good.” The curry was chicken-and-tomato based this time, and the bread garlic and rosemary and fine-grained, but no less delectable. Miro ate with a will, while Ardent turned the notebook about to glance over it as she ate. “So it’d have to be in one of the towers or the floaters, to be far enough from the core of the Etherium not to overdose on aether, and still close enough to grow up big and strong. And still get natural air and sun, which it couldn’t underground. That…doesn’t narrow it down as much as you’d hope.” She glanced out her window at the crowded Moon Etherium sky.

“It has to be somewhere Fallen owns,” Miro added. “Or it wouldn’t be in her possession and my father’s bargain with her would be out of force.”

“Ah! Good point.” Ardent finished her meal, then conjured a new surface beside her, and dispatched a few messages. “I’ll ask around, see if I can find out what properties are known to be under her control. But she could’ve made a private deal for a deed, and not registered it. Which she might have, given that she wants to keep the creature and her ownership of it a secret.” She tapped a blunt-tipped finger against the notebook. “The food requirements are interesting. Do you know what plant type it hatched from?”

Miro nodded, swallowing curry-soaked bread. “Yes. Cacao tree.”    

“Mmm, now, that’s convenient.” Ardent twisted about in her chair, and summoned a glamour to show the entirety of the Moon Etherium.


“Because there’s already an aethcacao cultivar.”

Miro leaned back. “So Fallen wouldn’t have to splice together her own hybrid before the phoenix rose died.”

“Mm-hmm. And, even better, there’s only a few fey who grow it. Three farmers, if memory serves and they’re all still operating.” Ardent walked through her illusory three-dimensional map to examine the north slopes of the Etherium’s crater-valley. “Looks like the farms are still there. You can only grow it on the slopes, in real soil and sun, and the northwest slopes get the best exposure. Needs just the right amount of raw aether for that magic-chocolate flavor. The aethcacao farms are almost as manual as barbarian farms.”

Miro rose to join her by the map, watching as she pointed to miniature slopes dotted with green trees, fruit nearly invisible beneath their leaves. “You think Fallen will have bought from them.”

“Yup.” She turned to him with a grin. “Wanna go visit some chocolate farms and see if they’ve had any new customers lately?”

He offered his hand. “It would be my pleasure, my lady.”

Ardent took it, but she hesitated rather than leaving.

“My lady?” Miro asked. Her large fingers curled around his hand, thumb tracing over his wrist. It was a slight gesture, to feel so sensual, to make his pulse race. “Is there…something else?”

“Yeah. Kinda. Um.” She rubbed one brown hand over her face, still holding onto him. “Right. So this is a pretty safe place. It’s mine, it’s warded, nobody should be able to get through the door or port in without me letting them.”

“You’re not thinking to leave me here because it’s safe?”

“No…well, I hadn’t been…” She giggled as he narrowed his eyes at her. “No, I won’t leave you here. Although it is tempting. But I don’t want you running around the Moon Etherium completely vulnerable if we get separated. I want to at least forge a teleport connection for you to here, so you can port here on your own. And give you a farspeaker device, since you can’t summon one.”

“I am certainly amenable to this.”

“Right. But I’m not much at enchanting and while I know it’s possible to make stuff like that by using aether efficiently I only know a few people who know how and I don’t know what it would cost or how long it’d take but I’m pretty sure I could do it if I…” Ardent spoke in one long breathless rush until she trailed off abruptly.

“Channeled power from me?” In some way, her obvious uncertainty made it easier for Miro to feign equanimity. As if she were nervous enough for both of them. Although it wasn’t nervousness that he felt at all. It was excitement. Longing. Both of which were inappropriate to the situation, and less intelligible than Ardent’s nerves.    

“Yes. That.” Ardent covered her face with her hand.

“That sounds very rational and practical.” Which it did, Miro reminded himself. “Shall we begin? I had best sit for this.” She nodded, face still in her hand, looking adorably embarrassed. He withdrew his hand from hers and moved to a seat on one of the sofas, reasoning he’d be less likely to fall off of that than a dining chair.

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Ardent was worried about Miro. He looked like he was taking things well, but this had to be rough for him. The sight of Jinokimijin all but naked and in blight-ridden chains, for the love of Justice, infuriated her. Not to mention that “adolescent girl” could not have been Jinokimijin’s choice of bodies. What was the Queen doing, permitting this vicious performance? It was one thing to acknowledge “I can’t save an individual from a bad deal they willingly entered” and another to showcase the most blatant and insulting trappings of slavery in the Moon Etherium’s most august institution. This was a travesty.

At the moment, the Court was hearing a storyteller’s request for an endorsement of a project that required more aether and more participants than a single fey could muster. The power of the Queen, Skein of the Absolute, was very different from that of a mortal government. The use of force did not work on fey individuals. An ordinary fey, even a barbarian, was immortal, nearly invulnerable, and all but impossible to imprison. Even fey possessions in an Etherium were generally much easier to safeguard than to harm. Crimes like assault and murder effectively didn’t exist. Theft in an Etherium did happen, but it was rare, in part because, except in the case of art, it was easier to make something new with aether than it was to take someone else’s creation.

The Queen did have power beyond the symbolic: she held the Heart of the Etherium, which replenished aether throughout the Etherium. The Heart did so automatically; it was not within the Queen’s power to withhold aether from the Etherium. But the structure and presence of the Queen and her High Court ensured that the Heart functioned smoothly and reliably. The most concrete power the Queen possessed was the ability to exile a Moon Host fey. Even that could not be used easily: it required the consent of a majority of the High Court. The Heart also empowered her to affiliate a willing subject with the Moon Host, but since a fey could do the affiliation ritual on their own, this ability was only ceremonial.

Its technical role aside, the High Court was more a social/cultural construct than a legal one. As a body, they wielded considerable influence, able to amplify or to ostracize, and the majority of the citizenry would follow suit. Members of the Moon Host did pay an annual tithe, but it was inconsequential by comparison with mortal taxes: a voucher for five hours of labor per year. The fey economy, such as it was, was backed by promises of labor. The crown issued generic feymin and feyour tokens as currency, secured by the crown’s supply of actual vouchers. Very few fey had minutes worth exactly a feymin, but the system worked no more badly than mortal standards based on precious metals.

The storyteller speaking now, a giant serpent with feathered wings and a fanned tail like a peacock’s, was fortunate to have received an audience. The time before the court alone would raise their importance in the eyes of the Moon Host. Their presentation was compelling, too. Ardent had missed the first half of their story and was distracted by her seething anger at Fallen’s treatment of her prisoner, and the High Court’s tacit acceptance thereof, but even so, she was drawn into the thread of the tale the coatl spun by glamour and voice. It was a retelling of the founding of the Moon Etherium, and how the Moon Etherium had wrested free of the Sun Etherium’s control almost six hundred years ago. Well-trodden ground, but Ardent liked the choice of protagonists: two families from the Sun Host who had come as colonists to the Moon Etherium, and the way their loyalties divided between their new home and the Sun King.

At the conclusion of the coatl’s presentation, the court hushed, all eyes on Queen Skein of the Absolute as they awaited her reaction. She was silent for a long time, and finally spoke. “Wisdom Draught, you have long been a favorite artist of Our realm. It is with no small regret that We inform you that We cannot endorse your current project. We look forward to your next proposal, and trust it will be more to Our…tastes.” Draught looked stricken as she waved them off. A tiny messenger fairy from Diamond of Winter swooped to the queen’s ear and whispered to her.

Ardent suppressed a scowl, wondering at the undertones of that rejection. She’d been unhappy with the Moon Etherium when she renounced it formally fourteen years ago, and her feelings about the Moon Host had long been mixed. She’d actually left the Etherium once before, for a couple of decades a century ago, and returned the first time at Skein’s request. She’d still respected Skein of the Absolute, even at her second departure. What happened to you, Skein?

The Queen nodded to her adjunct. Diamond of Winter drew itself up, a tall, heavyset glittering abstract of a humanoid figure, as if sculpted of cut glass. “The Crown welcomes Ardent Sojourner of the barbarian village Try Again to present her petition, and her companion, to the High Court of the Moon Etherium.” The courtiers assembled buzzed with sudden curiosity: those who hadn’t seen her enter recognized her name. And everyone could tell she hadn’t been kept waiting long, which surprised Ardent herself.

Ardent squared her shoulders and ascended the strange, barely existent stairs of the Great Hall, trusting Miro to follow in her footsteps. She stopped ten paces before and below the crescent throne. The queen turned her gaze upon them, and the moon illuminated them with the brilliance of stage floodlights. Ardent dropped to one knee and bowed her head; behind her, Miro did the same. “Your majesty, thank you for this audience. I come before the Court with my servant, Prince Mirohirokon of the Sun Host. If it pleases your majesty, I request my reinstatement in your majesty’s Etherium.”

The surprised murmuring around them intensified. Ardent waited with her head still down.

“It pleases Us to see you returned to Our Etherium, Ardent Sojourner,” the Queen said. “Please, rise.” Ardent stood. Miro remained kneeling, and Ardent nearly cued him to stand when she realized his grasp of etiquette was better: the queen hadn’t addressed him. “You are the second in recent days to come before us with a Sun Host member.” The queen didn’t turn her head, but the eyes of many went to Fallen and the enslaved fey at her feet. Fallen was watching Ardent with narrowed eyes. “You do not seek Moon affiliation for him?”

Ardent gave a mirthless smile. “If it pleases your majesty, he’s of more use to me in Sun Host.”

Skein of the Absolute watched her, appraising, for a long moment. Ardent cultivated a bland expression and awaited the next question. “We would know how you came by this prince, Ardent Sojourner.”    

“Well,” she drawled, “Happens one of his parents had gotten into a deal with Shadow of Fallen Scent. Prince Mirohirokon was not real happy with how it turned out. For some reason.” Ardent looked pointedly at Fallen and Jinokimijin. The latter had a worried look on her delicate girl’s face. “The prince came to me, pretty desperate for help. He wanted me to intercede for Disgraced Jinokimijin, and offered a gamble for it: if he beat me at Turns, I’d help him, and if I won, he’d serve me.”

“At Turns? You thought you could beat Ardent Sojourner at Turns, little prince?”

Mirohirokon flushed, still kneeling with head bowed. “It may be that poor choices run in my family line.”

“It may be that he thought he had an edge,” Ardent offered, kindly. Everything they’d said so far was true, including the game of Turns. Which Ardent had taken a massive handicap in, and lost, before they made the ‘deal’ which hinged upon its outcome. “But…well, here we are.” She smirked.

The Queen’s silver eyes were on her again. Ardent expected her to ask more questions: why did that bring you back? Why would the power of a Sun Host channel tempt you to return, when the power of a position in my High Court could not convince you to stay? Ardent had answers prepared for those, too. But instead, the Queen steepled her fingers. “We are pleased to welcome you back as affiliate of Our Moon Host, Ardent Sojourner. But We are concerned at the presence of two Sun Host affiliates in Our midst, and their potential as spies, or as a source of conflict in Our realm. Shadow of Fallen Scent has demonstrated that her servant is under her complete control.” A negligent gesture towards the pair on her left. “Are you able to do the same, Ardent Sojourner?” The Moon Queen circled a finger in the air, and a trace of glamour conjured a leashed collar in its wake. In a moment, it faded away in a sparkle of stars.

Ardent stared at her, disbelieving. You aren’t just tolerating that humiliation. You’re demanding it. Fury made blood roar in her ears; it was all she could do to keep it contained, to keep herself from lashing out. Servitude was one thing; she could understand the utility behind wanting servants, even if she disapproved. But degradation? In the name of Justice, what possible point could there to be to this?

The queen met her gaze, calm, unmoved, as if her suggestion was reasonable and not an unnecessary insult to not only Mirohirokon, but to his entire Etherium. “Is something amiss, Ardent Sojourner?” The queen’s eyes slid past her. “Surely you are in no position to object, Prince Mirohirokon?”

“Your majesty? Why would I object?” Miro’s voice tone was honestly perplexed, with no trace of dissembling, sarcasm, or resentment. “Your majesty honors me with this opportunity to prove my devotion to my new mistress and my willingness to fulfill my bargain. I thank you for your kindness.”

Ardent pivoted to him as he spoke. Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you? But he spoke with such conviction, as if he truly were honored. They were committed to this story already, and Ardent’s hesitance was only weakening their position. “Rise,” she told him, voice harsher than she intended, “and accept your chains.” Ardent shaped a plain collar of white gold between her hands as Miro stood. His brown eyes lifted to hers, for just a moment, and she could see nothing in them but a perfect trust, an inappropriate serenity. He bowed his head, meekly. Ardent closed the collar around his neck, a seamless metal circle he had no magic to remove. She drew her hand back, holding him leashed, feeling sick with helpless anger.

“Thank you, mistress,” Miro said, softly. “May I beg permission to speak?”

“Granted.” Ardent had no idea what else he had planned. Is this enough? she wanted to snarl at the Moon Queen.

“If I may beg your majesty’s indulgence?” Miro turned to the throne, but kept his head bowed.

“Go ahead,” the Moon Queen said, curious.

Miro knelt again. “By aether, by Justice, by Love, by Family, by Duty, by Truth, by Persistence: I give my oath and loyalty to you, Ardent Sojourner, without reservation. I swear to serve you in all ways, and in turn to act only in the best interests of the Moon Etherium and all her lawful inhabitants.” Ardent listened, shocked speechless, appalled by the thoroughness of the oath, the sweeping breadth of power he was granting her over him. He recited it two more times, giving it a binding weight the whole court could sense.

The satyress clenched her fingers around Miro’s chain to stop them from shaking. The entire court was stunned and silent, amazed. Ardent turned to the throne, and glimpsed Jinokimijin’s expression of unadulterated horror, terrified for her son in a way she had not been even for herself. Ardent met the Moon Queen’s gaze. “Is your majesty satisfied with the extent of my control?”

A smile formed on dark blue lips. “We are.”

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The pointlessly huge hall led to a slightly less pointless antechamber. This one had seats, and some fey awaiting permission to attend the court. Argent farspoke the queen’s adjunct again, then approached the doors to the court, bypassing those still waiting. The unicorn golem-guards opened a little door set into the house-sized double ones, and they passed into the Palace’s Great Hall.

Miro was used to the grand excesses of fey lords, but the Great Hall of the Moon Queen was something entirely other. It was like stepping into the night sky, if the sky were something one could walk in. He didn’t fall, but he couldn’t feel a floor holding him up, either. Ardent strode unfazed through the moonlit darkness, and he followed her as if she were the Path itself. Perhaps she was.

A throne in the shape of a crescent moon hung, unsupported, at the center of this sky-space. The Moon Queen rested at ease in its curve. She was a regal figure, her midnight-blue skin dusted with the swirls of nebulas and galaxies, crescent moons descending from the corners of her eyes. Her hair was a mane of glowing white, while dark antlers crowned her brow and a platinum circlet rested above them. She had dragonfly wings, translucent and gleaming with the stars beyond them.

Ranged about her were the fey of her High Court, Miro presumed, though he only recognized a few of them by sight. There was the great silver-and-blue dragon, Light Calls to Light, curled in empty space beneath the throne: they were one of the three High Lords of the Moon Etherium. To the queen’s right sat the crown prince Shell Inspire, a tall, slender human figure with pearlescent skin and a twisting unicorn’s horn rising from his forehead. He didn’t have a throne like his mother’s crescent moon, but there was a subtle pattern to the stars around him, that suggested he was seated on a throne made to match the backdrop. Now that Miro was looking for it, he could see similar seats among the other High Court figures. At the Queen’s left was the gray, fox-tailed figure of the Queen’s Surety, Shadow of Fallen Scent.

She had Miro’s parent kneeling in chains at her feet.

Miro knew Jinokimijin at once by soulsight, and by the tangled ropes of obligation that joined them, the goodness and corruption in the connection hopelessly intertwined. Jino had a good soul on the whole, or so Miro had always thought: clear, intense blues and greens that indicated durability, kindness, and determination. But it was not without flaws: flecks of bitterness, twisted knots of hatred, and long streaks of deceit and manipulation marred it with the gangrenous tint of corruption.

But Fallen had reshaped her fey slave’s physical form. The facial features were more delicately beautiful, skin paler, hair still rich gold but finer and straighter. Jino’s new body was short, slender and barely clothed, emphasizing a female figure too young to be so sexualized: rounded shoulders, small high breasts, narrow waist and hips, slim legs. She wore humiliatingly literal chains, as if the corrupted cable soulsight showed yoked to her neck might be insufficient. A loose silver chain linked ankle cuffs and a second the wrist cuffs, while a collar had its leashed end looped around Fallen’s wrist. Jewelry dangled from her ears, silvery hoop earrings, including one decorated with rubies. With Miro’s hair changed to white-blonde, the two Sun Host fey looked like the close relatives they were, though a mortal would think Jino the younger sister, not the father. Pale characters marred her inner arm like a tattoo, reading, “Property of Shadow of Fallen Scent”.

Jino met her son’s eyes across the empty space, with a startled expression she tried and failed to mask. A brief smile, perhaps meant to be reassuring, flickered and died on bow-shaped lips. Miro looked away, his face a mask. He didn’t even know how he felt, much less how he ought to feel, or what expression to show. There were another twelve or fifteen figures in the Moon High Court: princesses, another prince, high nobles, ministers. Miro should have tried to figure out who was who, but sick dread forming in his stomach made it impossible to focus. None of them had souls that inspired trust, though most of them weren’t monsters, not even the ogre-lord who wore a monster’s shape.

Except for Fallen, who had the second-foulest soul he’d ever seen. It was more corruption than not, a seething hideous mass of power lust, cruelty, and greed. He could smell the stench of her from here.    

And this was the woman that he’d let enslave his father.

Miro turned from the High Court to look around the rest of the space. There were a few hundred fey present, scattered in clusters about the starry space. Collectively, they drifted in a slow orbit around the High Court figures. Their souls were in better shape than the High Court’s, on the whole. The audience had less power lust and less cruelty, although streaks of sadism were still much more in evidence than they’d been in Try Again. Mostly, it was fear that weighed their souls down, fear and obligations – not to their Queen, but to Fallen. All of the High Court held an abundance of strings, but Fallen’s array was dizzying in number, and all miserable corrupted strings. The fey were all in different attitudes and positions. Some looked upside down or sideways relative to the throne, but their hair and clothes always hung as if the ground were under their feet. Sound did not echo here: it vanished into the unbounded space, so the murmuring of the assembly barely carried. Miro could sometimes glimpse outlines like stairs, bridges, balconies, underneath the fey, but when he blinked, there was only the void. And he still could feel nothing beneath his feet.

Ardent came to a stop alongside a cluster of a half-dozen fey. She laid her arm about his shoulders, as if to steer him to stand in the right place. He closed his eyes to breathe her in, and reminded himself, This place is better than you expected.

It was true.

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Ardent set Mirohirokon down in the vast entrance hall of the Moon Palace. It was ostentatiously large, irritatingly so since the Queen did not permit her subjects to teleport into any room closer to the court. It looked as if it had been carved from a single giant block of polished gray-black granite. Fanciful draconic columns supported silver crescent arches inset in a dark ceiling. The space was empty save for two impassive unicorn golems guarding the door to the antechamber.

Ardent covered her face with her hands and leaned against one of the draconic pillars. “Justice! I’d forgotten how annoying High Court is, and I remembered it being bad enough that I left to escape it. And we’re not even to it yet! Do I look as ridiculous as I feel?”

“You look magnificent, my lady,” Mirohirokon said, with a sincerity that made her peek between her fingers at him. “Just as you were magnificent holding court before three mortals in Try Again’s green,” he added, and she snorted back a laugh. “I am sorry that their manners brought you pain. But you remain a wonder to behold; nothing a clothier could do would lessen you.”

“What did I say about those pretty Sun Host courtesies?” She made a face at him. He smiled at her, unrepentant. He did look amazing. Especially with all that long straight hair flowing behind him like a cloak. She wondered if Katsura’s instinct – dress him as a Sun prince, and you’ll be even grander for having caught such a one – had been wrong. Would his polished Sun Host look and manners make the chaos of the Moon Court seem clumsy and childish by contrast? But she couldn’t have put him through any of Katsura’s other suggestions. Dress him like a slave? No. Ardent sighed. “C’mon, kid. Let’s get this over with.”

She started forward, but his touch on her hand made her pause. “My lady,” he said, gravely. “I am fifty-three years old. I realize that seems little to you, but my great-grandfather was only a few years older than I when he died of old age. I am not a child. Please, do not call me ‘kid’.”

She was on the point of protesting – I’m two centuries older than you! Everyone seems like a kid to me. I call Katsura ‘kid’ and she’s almost twice your age. It doesn’t mean anything.

But it meant something to him.

And he was here, surrendering his freedom and risking his life to save his father. He’d have little enough dignity in this part. What right did she have to take what remained away? “I’m sorry, sugar,” she said, contrite. “Of course you aren’t.” She gave a little laugh. “Guess I shouldn’t call you ‘sugar’ either, Mirohirokon.”

“‘Sugar’ is fine,” he said, mouth solemn but brown eyes mischievous. “I’ve no objections to ‘sweetie’, either. Or Miro, if you like. Or pet or slave, if need be. We do not always get to choose our roles.”

She grimaced. “No, we don’t.” She patted his back. “Miro.” Together, they walked the long hall towards the court.

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They arrived in a room with mirrored walls, ceiling, and floor, and extra freestanding mirrors in case those weren’t enough. There were also several dozen identical women with long fluffy white tails tipped in black, bat wings, and fox ears in a mane of white hair. Only one of them had a soul.

“Ardent!” the women cried, and charged in all directions, with the one who had a soul running straight at them. Ardent set Miro down and embraced the woman. After a moment’s disorientation, Miro resolved the situation into one woman and many, many reflections. “Beloved! You return home to us at last! Oh, we have missed you so, you have no idea. Look at you!” She leaned away from Ardent and flicked the short hemline of her chiton. “You look terrible, beloved, why do you do this to yourself? Look at your legs. No one has hairy legs any more. No one. Why are you still using those?”

“I’m not changing my legs for the High Court, kid,” Ardent told her. “I’ve had these legs for over two hundred years. I am very attached to them.”

“And your tail! Why do you even have a tail if you’re going to make it look like that? You might as well tie a dead rat to your butt. Now him, him, he is a classic!” She turned to Miro. “Such fine lines on this boy! I love that jacket, the asymmetrical fastening, novel yet traditional – is that the style in your High Court?”

“It is. Court dress has much more lace and the cut is tighter, but the lines through the torso are the same,” he said, in an effort to distract Threnody Katsura from denigrating Ardent’s appearance. It was better than giving in to the irrational urge to leap to her defense. His assistance there was surely neither necessary nor wanted. The diversion worked: Katsura pounced on the few details and demanded more. Soon, she was iterating designs upon him. A wave of her hand, and his existing clothing changed into a rough concept of his description. She then refined it, over and over again, as he clarified points and added details, and she toyed with her own embellishments.

While Miro had Katsura’s attention, Ardent stood before one of the wall mirrors and drew the High Court rune over it. Her reflection shifted to show a shorter version of her with human legs, wrapped in snug-fitted navy with silver trim, hair in elaborate winding braids. Ardent scowled at her reflection. She traced “clothing only” with her finger before the mirror, then waved her hand to replace the reflection with a new outfit on her current form. After a few dozen different outfits, Ardent yelled, “Katsura! Surely High Court fashion must still have some skirts? Dresses? Chitons? Robes? Caftans? Saris? Something?”

“What’s wrong with trousers?” Katsura asked, adjusting the lace visible through the slashed sleeves of Miro’s new jacket.

“I hate trousers. Can I go naked? Is naked still formal?”

“Beloved Ardent, naked hasn’t been formal since before I was born. There was, what, one summer in 1132 when it was formal?”

“One glorious summer.” Ardent gave a wistful sigh.

“Naked is not formal. Find something to wear or I’ll find it for you. You’re already wearing the right form for Sun High Court, I presume, Mirohirokon?”

He looked at his reflection, thoughtful. For most of his life, court dress had ranged between “entertaining nuisance” and “abhorred necessity”. For the last three decades, he’d kept much the same body regardless of what was in fashion. But here and now, he found that he wanted to do this properly. “No. I should be taller—” He gestured with his hand four inches over his head “— and broader, especially through the shoulders and chest. Muscular, like Ardent.” Reflexively, he tried to trueshift himself and could not. The uncomfortable sense of being hollow and parched in an aether sea intensified.

Katsura spun a homunculus out of aether, creating a tiny doll based on his current form, and then reshaped it in her hands according to his gestures. “I’m guessing you don’t mean you want Ardent’s bosom?”    

Not as a part of me, he thought, and blushed. “No, thank you. Oh, hair should be much longer, and light blond.”

“Longer?” Ardent glanced over her shoulder. “Kid, your hair is already hip-length!”

“Pay her no mind.” Katsura fiddled with the homunculus. “She has all the taste of month-old milk. How long?”

“It should trail behind me, like a train. Aether to keep it off the ground and in order, obviously.”

At his direction, Katsura lightened the doll’s hair to a white blond. She darkened the skin to a tan with a faint golden sheen, suggestive of buffed gold but not metallic. She handed the homunculus to him, and he took on its appearance. She accessorized him with a thin gold circlet sparkling with diamonds. Matched chains draped about his long, swept-back fey ears. His new jacket was waist-length in front, but fanned out in back to knee-height. It fastened with a lightning-strike pattern along the left breast, and came to a high collar, almost at his chin. The sleeves suggested wings, long and draping, with lightning-strike slashes along the top. Tights covered his legs, and the gold chains of formal sandals wound around his calves and fastened below the knee. The dominant colors were cream and gold, intricate lace mixed with bold matte satins.

“Truth,” Katsura breathed out, leaning back to admire her handiwork. “Now that is a prince.” She turned her attention to Ardent. “Now we must make you worthy of such a pet!”

“I’m wearing this.” Ardent had chosen one of the mirror designs and copied it onto herself. It was a high-collared sleeveless gown, close-fitted from chest to waist, with a circular cutout of transparent silk to showcase her ample cleavage. Its skirt flowed down from the waist, cut so high in front that it barely reached the tops of her thighs, but lengthening to almost sweep the floor in back. It was colored in variegated rich reds, and trimmed in platinum and rubies.

Katsura made a face. “Darling, you can’t wear that without tights.”

“Watch me. You ready to go, Mirohirokon?”

“You cannot leave here looking like that!” Katsura protested. “I forbid it! I shall never let you set foot – hoof – in here again if you sabotage one of my designs like this.”

This gave Ardent pause, and Katsura pounced on the opportunity. What followed was a long negotiation over every aspect of Ardent’s appearance. In the end, she held firm in refusing trousers, tights, different legs, or fur removal, but did consent to silver patterns dyed into her leg fur. She also let Katsura talk her into fey ears instead of her current goat-like ones. (“What’s wrong with my ears? You’ve got animal ears!” “Mine are lovely vulpine ears. Yours are goat. They go.”) Her horns were lengthened from short buds to long, curved spikes, and adorned with silver jewelry. Her hands were stripped of their callouses, the mere existence of which offended Katsura. (“You’re invulnerable! Why do you need callouses?” “Because I’m not automatically invulnerable to myself. And yes, if I’m paying attention, weeding and harvesting and whatnot won’t hurt my hands if I don’t want them to. But it’s annoying to always have to pay attention.”) Katsura tried and failed to convince her to exchange her (in Miro’s opinion) adorable short fluff of a tail for a long and plush one.

While they were still arguing over the tail, Threnody Katsura’s partner, Intend and Illuminate, popped in. Illuminate, who had feathered wings and rosette spots, promptly began to rhapsodize over the possibilities of Ardent’s hair. Ultimately, she transformed it into an elaborate network of hundreds of small braids, spiraling and looping upwards. Katsura extended the dress’s collar into a lace confection that framed her face. Both clothiers wound delicate silver jewelry about her bare arms and calves.

Finally, Ardent attempted to shake the two of them off. “All right, enough. Enough! Can we go now?”

“You look lovely,” Illuminate said, kindly, and put a few final touches on the silver design she was making above Ardent’s eyes.

Katsura sniffed. “Adequate.” Honesty mixed with cruelty and arrogance in her otherwise healthy soul. Miro struggled not to take a dislike to her, since Ardent didn’t seem to mind it.

Ardent arranged to pay them after she’d had a chance to unload Sessile’s cargo, then picked Miro up again and departed.

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Before they arrived, Ardent put the notebook down to discuss their story. Whatever they said, Shadow of Fallen Scent would know Mirohirokon had come to the Moon Etherium because of his father. “She’s not gonna be all ‘Oh, what a coincidence! You just got a Sun Host channel too! However could that have happened to both of us in the same week?’”

But Ardent’s motive for coming with him would be less clear. They could portray her as a willing confederate, or one he’d manipulated into assisting, or one who was taking advantage of his desperation. Or some tangled combination of all three.

After discussing the advantages and disadvantage of various options, they settled on one, not without some reservations. Ardent admonished Sessile not to speak to anyone of their conversation along the journey.

“Awww.” Sessile’s pout was audible even in her distorted voice. “Not even to Whistler? Not even the bit about more aether not being the answer?”

The satyress suppressed a smile. “Sorry, sweetie. Not even that, not even to him. This’s real important. You can keep quiet for us, right, Sessile? Don’t even act like there’s anything interesting that you can’t discuss.”

“Uh huh,” Sessile said, obedient if still disappointed. “I won’t tell, I promise.”

Miro felt the pressure of the Moon Etherium’s nearness long before they arrived. Aether enriched the air, but instead of soaking into him as the Sun Etherium’s would, it felt like a barrier against his skin. It leeched away at the aether he’d stored when he left the Sun Etherium, faster than the dryness of the Broken Lands, a dissipation that was nothing like channeling. It did not leave him tired, merely parched. He’d read about the effect but never experienced it before – nor had anyone he knew. In modern times, fey who wished to go to the opposite Etherium unaffiliated first, so that the aether of the other Etherium would welcome them instead of rendering them helpless. He fed the last of his aether into his various enchantments before it was gone, even though it scarcely mattered at this point. The enchanted items had no affiliation and would recharge soon enough from the Moon Etherium’s aether.

In the fey world, the Moon Etherium rested in a crater-like valley between hills. On the uphill slope was a fanciful town populated by a mixture of barbarians and Moon Host fey. They were near enough to the Etherium to enjoy a much higher supply of aether than Try Again. The difference showed in the many golems working in the streets, and the splendour of their architecture. It was a haphazard fusion of individual Fey aesthetics with the styles of dozens of different mortal worlds, with no regard for their original purpose. Mortals reserved their most interesting designs for their rulers and their gods. Here, ordinary fey of no particular consequence lived in palaces and temples, pagodas and parthenons, cathedrals and towers. One marble street was shaded by golden trees with jeweled leaves, for a particularly gaudy touch. The buildings were as large as their mortal equivalents, but not as well-ornamented. Most of them had simple, repeating designs, instead of a proliferation of unique cartouches.

Sessile slithered up the gaudy marble street, with evident delight as she made the sparkling trees chime. Ardent glanced up at the noise, and put the notebook down in her lap to turn to him. “We’re almost there, sweetie. You still sure about this?”

“I still don’t have any better ideas.” He half-smiled at her. “Yes. I’m sure.”

She reached out to offer her hand. He took it, finding comfort in the strong grip of her weathered fingers, the clean warmth of her soul. Perhaps this could work, after all.

They crested the rise, and the Moon Etherium sprawled beneath them.

Mirohirokon’s first impression of it was of a dizzying, chaotic mass of colors and styles, with no unifying theme and no underlying reason.    

In a true physical sense, he knew that the Moon Etherium proper was a sphere, a mile and a half in diameter. But with enough aether, space itself was a malleable thing. It was easy to learn how to make more space, or make distances disappear. To do both at the same time was tricky, but by no means impossible. At an Etherium, there was far, far more than enough aether.

Miro could see across the Moon Etherium valley to the not-too-distant hill on the far side. He was simultaneously aware that the valley was small, and also that it sprawled without end.

Within that sphere, less than two miles across, a vast metropolis spread before them.

Palaces drifted in the Etherium sky: one borne on the back of a pegasus, another resting on clouds, a third inverted, towers stretching towards the ground, foundation thrust into the sky, supported by nothing at all. A glass sailing ship with a dragon’s head prow and three masts hovered motionless in the air despite its rigged and billowing sails. A slender silver cable anchored it to a tower. On the ground, a vast flower garden formed a landscape painting more rational than the actual landscape around them. A stately mansion was at the center of the garden. Impossibly, its facade faced the sky, and at the same time faced forward at ground-level. Beside it was an incongruous collection of smooth, colorful, house-sized blobs against a matte-black surface. That surface should have been on the slope of the southwestern hill, but it looked flat and level. Beside that was a lake the size of a small sea, with water so clear one could see the underwater palaces made of air bubbles and coral reefs, fathoms beneath the surface. Hippocampi and sea serpents frolicked with merfolk. At the western edge, an ordinary-looking park of green grass and trees abutted a yawning abyss that oozed smoke, its bottom too deep to see, its sides fitfully lit by red flames.

Fey in a thousand shapes walked, flew, slithered, swam, and above all teleported as they moved through the scene: vanishing in an eyeblink, to reappear elsewhere in the Etherium. Many were humanoid, but few were as similar to a human as Miro. Some looked cast from metal, or stone, or sewn out of cloth: if he hadn’t had soulsight, Miro could have taken them for golems. Some were larger than Ardent, and most had some animal features. Feline ears, squirrel tails, scaled bodies, horns and wings abounded, as did skin, feathers, chitin, and more improbable substances. Others were not even humanoid. Some fey had shifted to the shape of dragons, unicorns, winged panthers, centaurs, and other impossible creatures.

At the center of this spectacle rose the Midnight Palace, a towering edifice that defied physical law. Among the absurdities were outer sections that swept out like a bird’s wings from the main body. Towers rose from absurdly narrow bases into house-sized protuberances. Upside-down staircases formed skybridges between peaks. Towers were at once behind and in front of walls. The whole was midnight blue in color, with galaxies and nebulas of stars that swirled slowly across its surface. The shape of a large glowing moon made a gradual orbit over the outer walls, changing from full to new to full as it progressed. It was currently gibbous, and rising to the left and above the doors into the east wing.

The riotous appearance of Moon Etherium – so unlike the more naturalistic and harmonious look of Sun Etherium – distracted Miro from the sudden thickness of the aether surrounding them. That sense of a barrier intensified: aether everywhere, rich and deep, all denied to him. Something inside him had opened in response, as if by the pressure of vacuum: the channel that would allow Ardent – or any fey who wasn’t Sun Host – to access the Sun Etherium’s aether. He felt uncomfortable and hideously vulnerable.

Next to him, Ardent had released his hand. The same moon aether that had deprived Miro of all magical ability had filled Ardent with potential. As an unaffiliated fey, she would not have the breadth or depth of connection that a Moon Host fey did, but it was still more than enough power to fulfill a mortal’s wildest dreams. She’d summoned a farspeaker surface into the air before her. Her hands flew over it, writing, drawing symbols and pictures, as she dispatched messages to her friends and contacts in the Moon Etherium. Return messages flowed in almost at once, in forms as varied as the Moon Etherium itself. A scroll appeared and unrolled itself at her elbow, a bird swooped in through the opening of one of Sessile’s carved nostrils and landed on her wrist, a glowing ball of light drifted through Sessile’s side and hovered to one side at eye level, and more. At least that flurry of activity had a familiarity to it, even if the shapes of the farspeakers were different.

“Where do you want to go here?” Sessile asked. “And do you want me to teleport?”

Ardent made a distracted motion, and Miro answered in her stead. “I believe we’re going to the Midnight Palace, Sessile.” Technically, Ardent didn’t need the Moon Queen’s permission to reaffiliate; it wasn’t as if anyone could stop her, especially with Miro to channel for her. But it would be polite, and there was no reason to antagonize the High Court. “And there’s no rush.”

“Yes!” Sessile said, triumphant. She slithered into the top of a steep switchback ramp with sloped sides, then slid down it by gravity alone. A muffled “wheeeee!” echoed through her interior, and Miro laughed despite his discomfort. He leaned back in his seat and enjoyed the ride down, watching the Etherium flash past. At the base of the ramp, Sessile slithered along a broad and all but empty road to the Palace.    

By the time they reached the door, Ardent had dismissed her farspeaker surface. She swept a few still-waiting messengers into her bag and drew a symbol in the air that would prevent new ones from arriving.

“How did it go?” Miro asked her.

Ardent massaged the base of her horns with one hand. “Ugh. So much noise. Let’s see. One of my friends, Threnody Katsura, has attempted to fill me in on a year’s worth of gossip. This included Fallen’s newest acquisition of a Sun Host channel. So if we had any doubts that she wouldn’t be showing your dad off, that’s settled. I spoke with the Queen’s adjunct, Diamond of Winter. It said that the Queen looks forward to seeing me and I should attend her ‘as soon as you have recovered from your journey’. Which translates to ‘clean up first, you uncivilized barbarian, and in the name of Duty wear something presentable’.” She looked down at her chiton and sighed. “I have no idea what’s in fashion these days. Let me amend that: I have never had any idea what’s in fashion. But I’m pretty sure ‘mortal peasant chic’ will not be it.”

His lips twitched. “I can tell you what’s current in the Sun Etherium High Court, if you wish to present yourself in high style for the wrong court.”

That won him a laugh. “Oh, now, that would make a statement. Let’s save that thought for when I’m not trying to be on my best behavior. I better ask Katsura for advice.” She made the gesture to allow messages again, and conjured the farspeaker. Miro watched her expression as she received Katsura’s replies by successive scrolls. Ardent stowed a few scrolls, dismissed most of them into the aether after reading, kept one, and violently incinerated four, with a ferocious scowl. “Argh, Katsura!”

Miro reclaimed his father’s notes to peruse while he waited, and kept his peace throughout, struggling not to smile.

After frowning at yet another scroll, Ardent turned to him with a sigh. “Sweetie, I think we’d better see Katsura in person. The latest High Court trends are things I haven’t even seen before, so I’d make a hash of replicating them myself. And we should probably dress you up, too. Katsura thinks you ought to wear the fashion of Sun High Court. I’m gonna guess it’s way more elaborate and ridiculous than that nice outfit you’re wearing?”

Miro laughed and nodded.

“And I’d make even more of a disaster out of that, insofar as that’s possible. Katsura loves fashion, she and her partner have a business doing it.” Ardent sounded glum. “So. Yeah. You all right with getting dressed up?”

“Of course.” For some reason, the prospect of dressing for the Sun High Court while in the Moon Etherium amused him. He rose and offered his hand. “Shall we?”

Ardent stood, stooped to avoid bumping her head, and scooped him up in one arm. “Go have fun, Sessile, I’ll farspeak you when we need you,” she told the golem, then ported herself and Miro away.

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Mirohirokon had expected to walk to the Moon Etherium – he had even brought an extra pair of walking shoes in case Ardent did not have her own – but his companion had other plans. “As long as I’m heading that way, and have the aether for it anyway, I’m bringing in some trade goods. Mostly mortal books and crops from the harvest. So we’ll take Sessile.”

Sessile proved to be a golem in the shape of an earth serpent, some forty feet long and seven feet in diameter at her widest. Miro stared at the golem, startled: she had a soul. It was a simple soul, granted, but nonetheless a pretty one: sleek and rich brown. It didn’t have the brilliant clarity of Ardent’s soul, but it had very little corruption. In his entire life, he’d only known three other golems with souls. To cover his surprise, he asked, “You have enough aether to awaken her?”

“Sure do. She’s more efficient than she looks.” Ardent patted the earth serpent’s bronze nose affectionately. Sessile was beautifully made, with sculpted overlapping scales jointed into cylindrical sections a couple of yards long. Decorative spines arched along her back, while her head had a draconic cast, crested by horns and adorned by an elaborate bridle of riveted leather. The tip of her nose had a round empty socket. Ardent fed aether into her, and the golem stirred. Color raced over her scales, giving the bronze a rainbow sheen. “Good morning, Sessile.”

Sessile lifted her head on three yards of bronze and yawned. “Good morning, Ardent Sojourner. Ooooh, I see I am going on a trip!!” She had an alto voice, higher pitched than her size would suggest, perhaps to reinforce the femininity indicated by her scent. The golem wriggled the lower length of her body, testing the weight of her cargo. Once animated, her entire form had become supple, not just the jointed sections. “Are you coming with me? Who’s your little friend?”

“This is Mirohirokon, and yes, he and I are both coming with you.”  

Sessile undulated with pleasure. “Yay! It’s good to meet you, Mirohirokon.”

He bowed to the golem. “Likewise,” he replied. “Thank you for your assistance, madame.”

“Oh, I like this one. Are you going to keep him, Ardent?”

Ardent gave the serpent golem’s bronze side a playful slap that would have staggered Miro. “Behave, Sessile. We’re going to the Moon Etherium. Get your nose down here so I can give you the route.” Ardent stretched up an arm to pull on the reins.

“This is how I behave. And I already know how to get to the Moon Etherium,” Sessile complained, but she dipped her head obediently at the satyress’s tug anyway.

“A little redundancy never hurt anyone.” Ardent socketed a crystal ball into the empty spot on the golem’s nose. “You wanna ride inside or out, kid?”

“I recommend inside,” Sessile said. “Much more comfortable.”

“How would you know?” Ardent asked.

“Because Beauty complains about the ride every time she’s on the saddle. Can we leave the saddle behind if neither of you are riding on top?”

“You just hate that saddle, don’t you?” Ardent grinned.

“I just hate that saddle. It flattens my spines and the straps on the bottom ruin my glide. Please ride inside.”

Miro stifled a smile. “I will be happy to ride inside, madame.”

“We can leave the saddle behind,” Ardent told the golem.

Yes!” The golem shimmied, rejoicing, and lay her head down to open her jaws. Ardent ducked to step inside, and Miro followed suit.    

On the inside, Sessile had a glamour to make her transparent. Several crates had been loaded into her cargo compartment in back, while two chairs were positioned and strapped down in front: one oversized, and one human-sized: clearly equipped with this trip in mind. The center of the serpent had enough headroom for Miro to stand comfortably, but Ardent had to hunch low to fit. The satyress settled into the larger chair and managed to still look cramped. After Miro took the other, Ardent announced, “Ready when you are.”

“And we’re off!” Sessile’s voice echoed oddly inside of her. The landscape slithered past as Sessile moved with a serpentine side-to-side motion.

“Oh, I forgot to say, sweetie, we’re a bit low on aether so no unnecessary earthswimming. Understood?”

“Awwww. All right.”

“You can earthswim all you want on the way back,” Ardent promised, and the golem cheered.

As they slipped from the village at a brisk pace, Miro took a notebook from his jacket pocket. He opened it and folded back the cover before offering it to Ardent. “These are my father’s notes and research on the phoenix rose. I thought you might want to have a look at it. I meant to offer last night, but…”

“I had plenty enough to occupy me last night, trust me.” Ardent took the notebook and began to read.

Miro turned to watch the landscape go by, and to keep himself from gazing in besotted adoration at Ardent’s soul. I wonder if I’ll get used to her eventually? I wonder what it would be like to be used to her? I wonder if she’s noticed already that I am hopelessly in love with her, or if I’ll be safe from that for a day or two longer? Perhaps it’s for the best that I have a harmless secret to keep from her. It will distract from the harmful ones.

The side-to-side motion of the golem made watching the landscape peculiar, as with each slither he switched between seeing what was ahead, to the side, or behind them. In a few minutes, they were out of the farms of Try Again, and going underneath a fey hill. Sessile wasn’t earthswimming: she’d shifted to the mortal lands. Her passengers instinctively switched to the mortal lands along with her. In her wake, she left tall grass and small bushes crushed flat. When they reached a dense mortal forest, she slithered up one of the trees, then shifted back to the fey lands and earthswam to the surface of the hill. She crested out, shook off loose dirt like water droplets, and slid down the slope of the hill. She was making good time: the Moon Etherium was a hundred miles or so from Try Again, and Miro estimated they’d arrive in an hour or perhaps ninety minutes. “Why are you named Sessile?” he asked the golem. “That’s an odd name for a fast serpent.”    

“I was intended for Try Again, and my maker figured it was fitting. Since I expected to spend a lot of time inanimate.”

“Does that bother you?”

An echo of a giggle. “No. Maybe it would, if I hadn’t been built for Try Again. But I think running out of aether for me feels like falling asleep does for you. I get tired, and then my body doesn’t want to move any more, and then I rest until someone needs me. I like working, but I like resting too. When I’m at an Etherium for very long and no one needs me for anything in particular, I always end up spending some time lying still and pretending I’m out of aether and asleep. I feel sorry for the golems in an Etherium who never stop working. And then I talk to them and it’s all ‘You poor thing, how can you stand spending your life aether-starved’. It all depends on what you’re used to. Or what you were meant to do. What’s it like for you, not knowing what you were made for?”

“Confusing,” Miro said, and then added, “Liberating. I don’t know what I was made for, but I have some ideas.”

“You do? What do you think you were made to do?”

He considered the question, and how he could answer it safely, and whether he should be answering it at all in front of Ardent. “It’s complicated. But the simplest version would be that we are made to love one another, and to make our world – all the worlds – a better place to live.”

“Even the simple version sounds complicated,” Sessile said, and he laughed. “What makes the world a better place to live? Aether?”    

“Perhaps. I think it had the potential to, in any case, but that we – all the fey – have gone astray with it. With aether, we ended hunger, disease, exposure, and aging. The fey as a species are now all but invulnerable, able to evade so that we cannot even be touched against our will, and able to escape if we are confined. In the Etheriums, there’s so much aether that every fey can spend it wildly on the most frivolous of whims. And yet…”

“…we still don’t get it right,” Ardent finished for him, quietly.

“We still don’t get it right.” Miro didn’t turn to her. It was easier to pretend he was talking to Sessile. “We ought to have everything we need to be happy, but we’re not. And yes, some people look for meaning by bringing joy to others, but there’s this…I don’t know how to explain it. Divisiveness? Cruelty? In the absence of the power to do physical damage, some specialize in wreaking social or emotional havoc. Maybe it’s because life is too easy. Without a common enemy in death, it’s too easy to squabble with each other.”

“I guess it is just as bad in Sun Etherium,” Ardent said.

“I knew more aether wasn’t always better,” Sessile crowed. “I’m gonna tell Whistler what you said as soon as I unload.”

Miro laughed at Sessile’s triumphant tone. “I would not swear that aether isn’t the solution. I am just…not sure that it is the solution, either. Is it better in the Broken Lands?” he asked Ardent. “It looks so difficult. All that work, just to stay fed and sheltered.”

“It’s better. I mean, it is a lot of work, but I like that about it. It gives me a purpose. And it gives Try Again unity. Not that it’s perfect. We still squabble and snap at each other. But when one of us really needs something done, we can count on each other to help. Why do you stay with Sun Host, sugar?”

“I don’t know. Because it’s what I’m used to. Because I don’t feel I can meet my existing obligations and I fear that the work of the barbarian life will be an impossible obligation added to it. Because I am too lazy to live without aether.” He turned to her, hesitated, and went on. “Because too many people are scared to leave, and I don’t want to leave them behind. Because if everyone who wants to do the right thing walks away, all that will be left are the frightened and the abusive.”

Ardent cast her eyes down to the notebook in her lap. “And here I thought your dad’s notes on the phoenix rose were terrifying.”

“I don’t – I am not criticizing your decision to leave, my lady.” I know you made the right choice for you. I can see it in your soul. “You are far braver than I.”

She reached out and looped her fingers lightly around his wrist. “Kid. That is one mountain of a lie. What you’re doing? Where we’re going? Don’t tell me you’re a coward.”

“Different kinds of courage,” Miro said, then changed the topic before he said something he’d truly regret. “Why do you say Dad’s notes are frightening?”

“Because, all right, I knew that a phoenix rose was one of key tools involved in breaking the fey world four hundred and fifty years ago. But that was a complicated process: you had, what, two Sun Host folks channeling for Moon Host sorcerers, and two Moon Host channeling for Sun Host, and they’re all working together with a phoenix rose and a hundred other fey accomplices to make a world gate, etc. And then: oops, that didn’t work out like we planned, sorry for all you folks who ended up dead and also for the gigantic hole we ripped in the mortal world and also reality but hey, at least we all get to drift erratically together through the layers of the universe experiencing entirely different worlds. So that was a mistake, and it’s a mistake you could only make with a phoenix rose. But I thought, well, that took a lot of people acting like idiots and if nothing else it takes time to coordinate a whole lot of idiots to do one giant stupid thing. But if your dad’s right, there is a whole lot of horrible just one fey could do with a phoenix rose alone.”

“Ah. Yes. If it helps any, all uses of a phoenix rose do require the construction of an extractor of one sort or another, and those range from ‘finicky’ to ‘extraordinarily finicky’. And some of the worst ones, I can’t imagine Fallen would want to use. I don’t think she’d have a lot of interest in sucking all the aether in an Etherium into one place in order to cause a massive explosion that would destroy the entire fey shard and likely all the fey with it. Especially since she would need to be at the center of the explosion to cause the effect and would definitely be destroyed with it,” Miro said. Ardent stared at him, her expression aghast. “…I gather you hadn’t gotten to that part yet. My apologies.”    

“That is a real possibility? That can happen? Please tell me you’re teasing me.”

“Um. It’s hard to do!” Miro offered, by way of consolation. “It will not happen by accident. One must expend a great deal of effort and resources towards achieving that end, and Dad stopped working out the details once he was sure that there was no possible way for this sequence of events either to occur by mistake or to turn out well.” She didn’t look consoled. “And it’s all theoretical! He never had an actual phoenix rose to verify things with, so his analysis is based on the behavior of firebuds, which are many orders of magnitude less impressive, and regression studies on various historical events. The theory is sound, though.”

Ardent put her face in her hands. “Why was your father even looking for this thing? What was he going to do with it?”

“Well. He did think it would impress my mother.” That was true, more or less. “And not all the effects are so gruesome.” Miro held out his hand, and Ardent returned the him. He paged through it. “Here, this one.” He handed it back to her, showing the diagram for the teleport extractor. This wasn’t one of the complex cages on other pages: it was a simple collar of white gold and rubies that fitted around the animal’s neck. “It lets one use the phoenix rose to teleport even when not in an Etherium. For several miles at a time.”

“Oh!” The satyress looked the description over. “I admit, that would be useful. Though with only one phoenix rose, impact would be rather limited.”

“There’s one for reshaping the landscape, too. Outside of an Etherium. You could level hills, or raise them, or turn the Stone Forest into arable land.”

“That’d be something, all right. Wonder if you could use it to build good roads?”

“I am sure that you could.” Miro tried to remember other beneficial applications. “The phoenix rose might enable a fey to generate their own supply of aether, outside of an Etherium. So one could explore a mortal world with a renewable source of aether, instead of just what one had stored when one left. That one didn’t work in tests correctly, though. Apparently.”

“All right, some of those sound pretty convenient, I’ll give you that.” Ardent turned the page on the notebook. “Aaand then there’s one that lets the phoenix rose remove fey invulnerability. And elusiveness. And evasion. That wouldn’t be horrifying in Fallen’s hands at all. Why was your dad researching these awful applications?”

“He believes in being thorough. And the most interesting aspect of a phoenix rose is its ability to do things that cannot be done with aether, and a lot of those things turn out to be…not good. In themselves. But sometimes exploring things you wouldn’t want to do leads to discoveries of things you would. He was working on a design for farspeaking across the whole of the fey shard, though that one isn’t complete. Anyway, Dad didn’t think Fallen was as far along in learning how to use the phoenix rose as he was, which will also work in our favor. She’s unlikely to be able to use it yet in any capacity.”

“If your father had been right about what Fallen knew, he wouldn’t be in this predicament,” Ardent pointed out. “Besides, she has him now.”

“But she doesn’t have his notes. We do.”

“How much difference will that make? Surely he remembers his own research.”

“Oh, the essence of it, perhaps. Ratios and precise rituals and architecture?” Miro waggled one hand. “And my father’s memory is notoriously bad. Fallen will know better than to rely on it. May I see that again?” She handed the notebook back to him, and he flipped forward through some sections, then returned it to her. It was on the first page of the notebook again. “This is the ‘care and feeding’ section. A phoenix rose is quite delicate, so I suspect this is what will help us most in determining where she’s keeping it.”

“Mm hm.” She frowned at the page. “This notebook is enchanted? How long is it?”


“I don’t know if that’s good or bad. If it runs out of aether, is everything on the extra pages going to vanish?”

“No, the additional pages will return when it’s restored to aether. But you won’t be able to read the pages beyond whatever is currently on its physical ones, if it’s out of aether or deactivated.”

“Mmm.” Ardent pursed her full lips, and sat back to read again.    

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Before they left Try Again, Ardent stopped at the village shrine. It was a single room, more of a shelter than a building, but large and with a high ceiling. It was built of natural materials: a clay brick foundation, wooden walls, and a thatched roof. It was dim and chilly inside: the windows had no glass and were shuttered. Ardent lit a taper at the entrance. “It’s kinda shabby, I know,” she said to Miro. “But it was the first building made in Try Again.”

“Was there a Try before Try Again?” Miro asked, unable to resist.    

Ardent laughed. “Sort of. Imosididi and Kivivetete built the first house in this area, ten miles west of here. It was too far from the river, and they abandoned it after a fire damaged it. Then they moved here, and decided their big mistake was not starting with a shrine. So.” She gestured with the taper, then walked to the altar, a polished wooden cabinet topped by a two-tiered slab of polished stone. Six humanoid figures rested upon the upper tier: Justice, carrying an open cage in one hand and a key in the other; Love, nude and with her arms open; Persistence, with legs braced and leaning forward, his cloak whipping back; Truth, with a scroll unrolled to his base in his hands; Duty, carrying a globe upon its back; and one other Mirohirokon didn’t recognize. It should have been Family, a parent with a nursing baby in their arms, but instead the figure held two interlocking rings.

Each figure had a votive candle holder set before it. Ardent cleared the remnants of the last votives from the holders, then replaced them with fresh candles. She lit each votive in turn, head bowed for a moment of contemplation between each one.

Miro hung back, not wishing to intrude on her ritual. There were no seats in the shrine, just rows of flat mats. He knelt on one of the mats a couple of rows from the back, and clasped his hands. Miro appreciated the concepts of the Ideals, and understood that other people found the rituals associated with them calming and centering. But even so, he’d never felt connected with any shrine, nor felt that bringing a sacrifice to an Ideal had helped him live up to it. They weren’t gods. They didn’t have any power beyond what you brought to them.

At the altar, Ardent took a minor Ideal Mirohirokon didn’t recognize from the cabinet: a woman with a cup in her left hand, and her right hand covering its top. She set the minor Ideal on the lower tier, and lit a votive for it as well, then bowed her head.

Mirohirokon closed his eyes and prayed to the tri-part god he did believe in. Divine, give me strength for what lies before me. Guide, help me to find the Path, and not to stray. He prayed for his father and for Ardent too, while he was at it, and then apologized again for his fallibility. He felt the weight of his obligation to his father like a chain on the back of his neck: a twisted, tangled, knotted rope of vibrant copper, stained by tarnish and corruption. It was, he suspected, the reason his obligation to Ardent was already contaminated. I am too bound up in this course to do anything pure. Guide, I don’t know what else to do. Every course I see is worse than this one. But if this is the Path, why does it still feel twisted and wrong?

There was no answer, but he hadn’t expected one. He ran through a litany in his head, over and over again, until he felt Ardent’s hand on his shoulder.

“Hey-o, sugar. Did you want to illuminate the Ideals, too?”

Miro shook his head, and wondered if he should have done so anyway, for her sake if not his own. Her soul is true. She’s a lot more likely to be on the Path than I am. Maybe I should just follow her, wherever she leads.

But if Ardent thought his refusal unusual, she showed no sign of it. “All right. I’m ready to go when you are, sugar.” He took her offered hand, and she helped him to his feet.

Miro glanced to the altar; she’d left the minor Ideal on the lower tier, with a folded prayer burning on a sacrifice tray before it. “That minor Ideal you set out – I don’t recognize her. Which is she?”

“Moderation,” Ardent answered. “Expect I’m gonna need to see a lot of her from here on.”

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Miro woke during the night to the smell of food at his side and a ravenous appetite. It had been quite a while since he’d had an entire meal of only real food. Aetherfood was always smoother and finer. He could taste the coarse grain of the flatbread, the silky strings of chopped onion baked into it, the grittiness of squash, the fibers of the chicken. Alongside the curious textures were rich, complex flavors: the tang and heat of spices in the curry, the subtle sweetness of onion. He could have masked some or all of it with glamour. Glamour required very little aether, and despite the channeling earlier, and the slow evaporation into the aether-depleted air of the Broken Lands, he still had a considerable amount. He could have made it taste like something else entirely, had he chosen. But he found he liked it as it was, strange textures and intense flavors and all. Before he was done, he’d mopped the last remnants of curry from the bowl with the last bites of bread. Afterwards, he fell back to sleep.

In the morning, he felt refreshed and alert, if bedraggled from sleeping in his clothes. Miro spared some aether to clean himself and his clothing, and to smooth the wrinkles from the cloth, then paused and gave the same consideration to cleaning and making the bed. He took the dishes from the bedside table, cleaned them as well, then stepped from the bedroom to the kitchen. Ardent was already up and scrambling eggs. He stopped by the doorway to stare at her soul. He didn’t know what he’d expected: for it to have corrupted overnight? That he’d misremembered how beautiful she was, or been deluded by the euphoria from channeling?

He had not been mistaken. She was still astonishing. He stepped closer and breathed her in. Even the scent of her – she was like fresh air after a spring rain. As if he’d spent his whole life choking on smoke and never realized until now what clean air was like. She was physically dominating, towering more than a foot over him, but her soul was so overpowering he barely noticed.

Her caprine ears swiveled towards him. “Good morning, sugar. Sleep all right?”

“Very well, thank you.” He took a glance through the door from kitchen to front room, and realized abruptly that the house only had three rooms. “I apologize; I didn’t realize I’d put you out of your own room, my lady.”

She waved it off. “No reason you would. It’s fine, I stayed with Relentless. He’s got plenty of space. Hungry?”

He nodded, holding out his bowl, and she dished up some of the eggs. “Feel free to glamour it up, kid, I won’t be offended.”

Miro smiled and tried a forkful, then dug in, enjoying the curious, unmodified texture. They took their dishes to the workroom – the small kitchen had no table – and ate in silence until he hazarded a question. “The matters you mentioned last night – were you able to settle them already, or…?”

“Mmm. Mostly.” She gave him an evaluating look. “There’s a few things we gotta talk about yet, your highness.”

Of all the ways she referred to him, his proper title was somehow the least pleasant. He took a sip of pear cider, and looked to her attentively. “Yes, my lady?”

“So. The reason I could tell you’re High Court isn’t just that you were holding too much aether for a regular affiliate of the Sun Host. It’s that you have a wider connection to the Sun Etherium. A much wider connection.”

He turned his eyes to his meal, with a suspicion of where this was going. “I am aware of that, yes.”

“Are you now? That connection’s not usable in the Broken Land, but it’ll be wide open in the Moon Etherium.”

There was no use in dancing around the truth. “Yes. It means that my body can be used to channel more aether at one time than I would be able to survive channeling, and this is not a form of mortality that aether or fey invulnerability could defend me from.”

“You could die,” Ardent said, voice low.

“I could die. Yes. I accept this risk.”

“I’m glad you accept it. As the person who might be killing you, sugar, I’m a whisker less sanguine about it. That channeling test last night…” She put her fork down, and scrunched her curly hair with one brown hand. “That didn’t go badly in any of the ways I expected it to, but it didn’t exactly go well, either. I took more than I meant to, and. Well. If we’re gonna do this, I kinda need to know that, first, I am capable of stopping when I intend to stop, and second, that you are capable of telling me to stop if I’m drawing too much.”

“I have every faith in you, my lady.” His voice was soft and earnest.    

“That’s great, your highness, but I kinda need to have it in myself.”    

“I am amenable to further tests, if that will help?” Miro fought to make the words neutral, to keep the eagerness from them.

“Yeah…” Ardent sounded reluctant, and he found himself disappointed by that. “Yeah, I think it would.” She finished her last bite of breakfast, wiped her hands on a napkin, and offered her palm. He lay his wrist against her fingers, and was chagrinned to see his own hand trembling. “This time, I by Truth am going to take just a little. Enough to charge a pair of walking boots. No more. And I want you to tell me to stop when I’ve reached that level. No, wait. I want you to tell me to stop before I get even that much. Let’s say half as much. Sound good?”    

He nodded, feeling his own pulse beating faster under her touch. “Yes.” She took a deep breath, and he felt it again: this time slower, but still flying on the ebb of aether, still that sense of falling into her. He forced himself not to get lost in the sensation, to monitor the level of aether within him. He kept his eyes open, watching her face. She’d closed her own. There. That’s the limit she requested. “Stop,” Miro said, softly.

Just like that, Ardent did. Her eyes fluttered open, meeting his. Her dark eyes sparkled with flecks of orange, aether dancing behind them. Her wide, full lips parted, breathing out, breathing in, and he wondered what it would be like to kiss her. Would she be as gentle as her fingertips against his wrist, or as overwhelming as her bonfire soul, as overpowering as her channeling?

Guide, help me. I need to keep the Path. He took a deep breath himself. “Better?”

Ardent answered with a nod. “Yeah.” She hesitated. “We should do that again. Wait, no, I’m sorry, you—”

She started to draw back her hand, and he curled his fingers slightly against the base of her palm, arresting her motion. “No, you’re right,” he agreed, surprised at the steadiness of his own voice. “You stopped when I asked you to. You want to be sure that you can stop when you mean to, even if I don’t say anything.”

“Yeah.” She exhaled. “Right. I’ll draw the same amount of aether as last time. Tell me to stop if I go much over that. Understood?” At his nod, she began, and this time Miro closed his eyes, letting himself relax into the delicious sensation. It ended much too soon, and exactly when she’d said it would.

Miro smiled at her. “Your control is excellent, my lady.” He stroked his fingertips against her wrist; the skin was much softer there than on her calloused hands. He wanted to fall against her, to tuck his head beneath her chin and snuggle in against her broad, inviting bosom. He leaned against the table instead.

“Guess so,” she said, as if unconvinced by her own example. She withdrew her arm. “Sorry. This is…a lot more intense than I’m used to. And I know it’s going to be dozen times worse when we’re in the Moon Etherium. Guess I’m a little nervous. A lot nervous. Heh. I’m not used to being nervous either, sugar. You sure you’re all right?”

I love it. But if you’d like to do another test, just to be sure… “Very certain. Is it so unpleasant for you?” he asked, dismayed. “I am sorry to be the cause of distress.”

Ardent laughed. “Oh, sugar, ‘unpleasant’ is definitely not the word. Definitely not. I’m just worried about you. You look a little peaked.”    

“Don’t be. I feel fantastic.” Miro touched the smooth dark skin on the back of her hand. “Of all the things I am apprehensive about, my lady, I assure you: this is not among them.”

Hey eyes glanced to his hand, then back up to meet his, with a shaky smile. “All right then.” She turned about on the bench to lean back against the table and gaze out her window. “Sweetie, do mortals ever come to the Sun Etherium to trade?”

He blinked at the change of topic. “To the Sun Etherium? No. It’s much too far into their ‘Cursed Lands’.”

Her mouth twisted. “Right. That’s what I thought.” Ardent stood, drawing herself up to her full imposing height, a giantess looming over him. “Mirohirokon, my help in securing the freedom of the phoenix rose and your father from Shadow of Fallen Scent comes at a price.”

Miro bowed his head. “I will be deeply in your debt,” he acknowledged. He had no expectation of ever being free of her string upon him, not after this. Surprisingly, he found the prospect did not trouble him.

She wrinkled her nose and continued, “This is my price. The Sun Etherium is abducting mortals. I want this practice stopped, and I want any captive mortals freed and returned, if possible, to their own people. If such is not feasible, then they must be allowed to choose their own course, whether to live as free people in the Fey World, or whether to take their chances in a foreign mortal one. I know, you’re the ninth-to-eleventh-favorite prince, but you’re still High Court. I do not require you to guarantee success, for neither can I guarantee our success. But I require that you do your best to end the enslavement of mortals.”

Of all the things she might have asked for – aether deliveries or materials for her village, trade concessions, his permanent obligation – this was not one he’d been prepared to hear. For a moment, he imagined the Sun Queen’s reaction to such an accusation: her sneering contempt, her outrage at a mere barbarian telling her how to order her Etherium. He could see the string upon her hand form, a bright clear orange: the obligation to her, offered alongside her aid, untainted on her side. “My lady. I will do all that I can.” Am already doing all that I can, in fact. At his promise, he saw the orange connection reach out and half-encircle him to join to the back of his neck. About midway, it changed: the thread twisted, a few flecks of corruption in it, as it made the shift from Ardent’s untainted string to an obligation Miro was less certain he would keep.

“You already knew,” she said, and he thought she was disappointed. In him? In his Etherium? Both?

Miro supposed that was fair; he was disappointed in both himself. “My lady.” He wanted to apologize, explain, but what was the use? It was not excusable.

“Justice,” Ardent swore. “You’ve got aether beyond measure! What do you people even need slaves for? Never mind, don’t answer that. I know.” The disgust was plain in her tone. “Justice. I thought the fey’d moved past this four hundred years ago.”

“I cannot speak for the Moon Etherium, but I fear the Sun has…backslid, during my mother’s reign.”

Ardent snorted. She patted his shoulder. “Sorry, kid. You’re not to blame for your parents’ failings, you know. C’mon. Let’s see about prying your Dad out of this cage.”

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On the walk back to Try Again, Intia spoke to Awni, and Ardent learned how Awni had ended up partway to Sun Etherium. Several days earlier, he had met a fey child, whom he called “Tila” and somehow had decided was female. Tila and he had played a couple of times on the fringes of the fey lands. Two days ago, she’d showed up and asked if he wanted to go flying with her. He agreed, and she’d changed both him and herself into birds. They flew around for half an hour, and then Tila made him land and they turned back into people. She told him to wait on the hillside and she’d be back soon to get him. Then she ran away in “her funny big boots”. Awni grew frightened when “she was gone a long time”. He went to look for her and “fell through the hill” and had been wandering lost and scared since.

To Ardent’s fey ears, the story was depressingly plausible. She doubted Tila had even intentionally abandoned its friend, or meant any harm to him. The fey child must be Sun Host. The “funny big boots” were some adult’s traveling shoes that Tila was too young to know how to resize. Tila’d run out of aether during their flying jaunt, and gone back to the Etherium to get more. Then when Tila came back and was unable to find him, Tila might have been scared to tell an adult what had happened for fear of getting itself in trouble. For that matter, Tila sounded young enough that it wouldn’t realize Awni was in trouble. A five or six year-old fey had no real concept that mortal children were neither immortal nor indestructible, and wholly incapable of traversing dozens of miles unassisted. Tila might have assumed its friend had gone home on his own, as easily as Tila could. Ardent wanted to blame Tila’s parents for letting it run rampant like this…but the truth was, fey children were immortal and indestructible and lots of Etherium parents relied on scrying to monitor their children. Ardent sighed inwardly. What a mess.

It didn’t take long to return to the village. According to the crystal, the traders were still with Relentless Comfort. Ardent expected he was going to put them up for the night. Relentless lived in the largest home in Try Again, a miniature palace he’d imported from the Moon Etherium. It was night by now, but Ardent expected Relentless and his guests to still be awake. So when she arrived at his front door, a child on either shoulder, she leaned forward and had Intia ring the doorbell.

An incredulous Relentless answered the door. “You actually found the children? How? Where were they?”

“Scrying. I got some aether from the Sun lord. The older one was lost. The younger’d been abducted.” Ardent said in fey. She brushed past the naga and into his drawing room. “Hey-o, Finquio, Mifinto, Huanato. I found your strays.” She set the children down.

Intia rushed into the embrace of the oldest trader, who knelt to receive her. “Uncle Huanato! Uncle Huanato!”

“I’m sure the kids are hungry,” Ardent said, as the mortals had their reunion in a babble of recriminations, relief, and apologies. “I’ll go get them some food.”

“What do you mean, ‘abducted’?” Relentless followed her out, serpentine tail-tip twitching,

Ardent sighed and started explaining while she went into the palace’s cellar. She scrounged up some vegetables, fresh eggs, and cheese, and then returned to the kitchen. Relentless’s little palace had a pleasant, well-engineered kitchen, based on designs adapted from a half-dozen mortal worlds. An Etherium kitchen was far superior, but those consumed far more aether than was available in the Broken Lands. By the time Ardent had finished Awni’s story, she was halfway through cooking the first omelet.

“Great,” Relentless grumbled when she finished. “And you just handed it back over to them.”

“Uh-huh.” Ardent slid the omelet onto a plate and started cooking the second. “And the boy has a gender. So does the girl. Try to remember that when you’re talking to their relatives.”

“Ugh. Why do they assign genders to children so young? Are they going to have sex with a five year old? Mortal customs are disgusting.”    

Ardent sighed. “You know, when my grandparents were kids, fey still assigned genders to children. When they were born.”

Relentless shuddered. “It’s still grotesque. And you know that child is just going to spread another tale about how we’re the monsters of the Cursed Lands, after this.”

“Sugar, until we stop acting like dangerous monsters, it’s not exactly fair to blame the mortals for thinking that we are dangerous monsters.” She sprinkled a little more cheese into the cooking eggs.    

“Ha ha ha. You know full well that fey child wasn’t trying to kidnap or hurt their child.”

“Yes. And I know full well that he would’ve been dead because of Tila, if these folks hadn’t showed up to ask us to look for him. This is not acceptable, Relentless.” She folded the omelet over in the pan.

Relentless lashed his tail into the counter. “What the Etheriums do, or don’t do, isn’t something we can control, Ardent. Persistence! I came here to get away from Etherium politics.”

“Me too, sugar.” They waited in silence while the omelet finished cooking. Ardent transferred it to a plate and poured a couple of glasses of milk. She handed the milk to Relentless to carry. “I’m going back to the Moon Etherium tomorrow.”

“What? But – it’s the harvest season. You can’t leave now. Why are you going? Does this have to do with that Sun lord?”

“It’s complicated.” She picked the plates up. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, but I’ll bring back aether to make up for it.”

“Aether won’t harvest your crops, not unless you want to ruin the flavor. You might as well bring back aetherfood at that point,” Relentless grumbled. While food was growing or being harvested, the use of aether on it would strongly affect the taste. It wasn’t necessarily an unpleasant effect, but it would no longer taste natural.

“I know. Maybe I can work something out with the mortals tonight, get some of them in to help. Will you talk to the others for me?”

The naga flicked out his forked tongue. “I suppose so. But why now? Why the Moon Etherium? They’re not the ones who got that child lost. ‘Tila’ must be short for some Sun name. What did that Sun lord say to you?”

Ardent sighed. “Shadow of Fallen Scent enslaved his father, Relentless.” The naga blinked at her. “I don’t want to get into the details, and I’d as soon you didn’t tell anyone else.” She carried the omelets into the drawing room and offered them to the children, who fell upon the food like deer in a garden.

“Very well.” Relentless handed the kids their milk. “Good luck, Ardent.”

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Later, Ardent returned with a bowl of summer squash and chicken curry, a pear, and a couple of rounds of flat onion bread. She stood over her sleeping guest, watching him. He looked younger, the lines of strain erased from his features. Channeling from Mirohirokon had been a far more sensual experience than she’d expected, and she found she now had more than a merely aesthetic appreciation of his appearance. He was still clothed; part of her mind whispered, he’d sleep better undressed. That was true, just as it was true that carrying him to her bed had been the practical way to transport him while he was too exhausted to stand without swaying. But Ardent was pretty sure she was also making excuses to take liberties with him, and that made her uneasy. Instead of disturbing him, she set the food on the bedside table and wasted some aether on a cantrip to keep the curry and bread warm and fresh until morning.

She returned to the workroom to root through her trunks until she found her old crystal ball. After shoving some of her tools and projects to one side on the table, she plunked its stand on the cleared space and set it down. Ardent channeled some aether into the crystal ball, then spent a few minutes trying and failing to recall the rune for “mortal”. Finally, she rolled her eyes and spelled it out instead. It showed her the mortal traders eating dinner with Relentless, and no one else when she drew the rune for “next”.

“So either there’s no one else in the area, or I’ve forgotten that rune too,” Ardent grumbled. She tried a few variants with no success, fed the scrying device some more aether, and tried again. After the third pass – “C’mon, how far can one mortal child get?” – it showed her a scared little mortal child hunched and crying in a vast twilit prairie. “There you are. Hang on, baby, I’ll come getcha.” The next image showed her a young mortal in an orchard. Pears bulged in the pocket of the child’s apron. The kid was crouched behind a tree to hide from a fey with a head crowned by horns and a plump humanoid body covered in glittering iridescent scales. Ardent recognized the fey as Beauty of Autumn, in her orchard on the outskirts of Try Again. “You first, then.” Like Relentless, she was certain the infant would not be in the fey shard, but she drew “next” again anyway. The crystal showed the first child again.

Ardent emptied her rucksack and put the crystal ball in it, then dug out her old traveling boots and fed them some aether. She took a moment to write a note for Mirohirokon in case he woke before morning, and set out.

A minute later, and Ardent walked into the orchard. With the crystal ball in one hand, she stepped here and there as she tried to orient herself on the kid’s exact location. After a few false starts, she realized where the child was. Ardent crossed a hundred yards of orchard in a handful of strides and overshot by several yards. She heard a soft scrabbling behind her and turned to see the child rabbiting off, frayed pigtails bouncing. “Hoy! Wait up!” Ardent took care in her next stride, and placed herself right before the mortal. The child stumbled into her furred legs and squeaked as Ardent turned around.

“Grandmother Arventia!” the child exclaimed. The kid staggered backwards, hands fumbling into apron pocket. Pears spilled from small hands as the child dropped to its knees and held them up like an offering. “I’m sorry I stole the pears, Grandmother! Please don’t eat me!”

Ardent put a hand over her face. Right. This is what glamour is for. She knelt herself, and patted the kid’s trembling shoulder. “It’s all right.” She didn’t dispute the appellation of ‘grandmother’: among the locals, it was a respectful title for any older woman, and at two hundred and fifty-one, Ardent expected she’d earned it. “I’m not going to eat you. I’m here to take you back to your people. There, now. Up you go. Don’t cry, little mouse.”

Tears still ran down the child’s fawn cheeks, small hands reaching past Ardent to frantically stuff the stolen pears into Ardent’s rucksack. “No, no, I’ll give them back, I didn’t mean to, please don’t turn me into a mouse, Grandmother, I’m sorry!”

“It’s a figure of speech, su—” right let’s not get back to the ‘don’t eat me’ stage “—um. Intia, is it? Or Awni?”

The child blinked at her, expression finally changing from one of terror to confusion. “I’m Intia. Awni is a boy’s name,” the child said, offended.

Oh, yeah, mortals assign genders to their children. And tell which is which somehow. Kids didn’t have enough sex-specific hormones to register as gendered to Ardent’s senses, and no visible sexual characteristics, at least not while clothed. The fey shard had synchronized with dozens of different mortal worlds in just the fourteen years Ardent had most recently lived in Try Again. She had no idea what cues mortals here used to show what gender they’d assigned a child in the Old World. Clothing? Hair length? Style? Colors worn? Well, it hardly matters now. “Great, Intia, nice to meet you. I’m not gonna turn you into anything. You’re all right now. How long have you been lost out here? You must be half-starved.” She picked the child up and sat it – her – on one broad shoulder, keeping her balanced with one hand. “We’ll get you a proper meal soon.”

By now, Beauty of Autumn was walking over to see what was going on. The other fey laughed as she saw the child. “Hey-o, Ardent! I was wondering where those pear cores were coming from,” she said in fey. “Aww, poor wee thing,” she added, as Intia clutched at Ardent’s head and stared fearfully at Beauty. “We not hurt little one,” she told the child in an inexpert version of the local language, then resumed in fey, “Do you know where its parents are?”

“No, but some merchants were in town asking after her, so I figure they do.” Ardent switched back to the mortal girl’s tongue and said, “All right, Intia, do you want to go meet some nice adult mortals? Er, humans, I mean. Or do you want to help me find the other lost child?”    

Intia sniffled again. “Lost child?”

“Uh huh.” Ardent fussed one-handed with the crystal ball, until it showed the other child. “You know it? Him? I don’t think he’s from your village.”

“Awni!” she exclaimed, startled. “That’s Awni! No, Grandmother, please don’t hurt him! I’ll do whatever you want!”

“Intia, little girl, I’m not gonna hurt anyone. No matter what you do. You wanna help me find Awni? I don’t recognize where he is.”

“He’s in the Cursed Lands,” she said, promptly.

That part I knew, Ardent thought, and then realized what the child meant. “Oh, he’s in the mortal layer. Of course! Have you been there? It’s all right if you have, Intia. No one’s gonna be mad.”

She hesitated, then nodded. “The vang qui grows there. My da an’ I go every year to pick it.”

“Great! You know how to get there? Of course you don’t, you don’t recognize anything here. Let’s shift so we’re only in the mortal world.” Ardent moved herself from the fey world to the mortal one, then had to move into a partial straddle to grab for the girl as the child fell through her. “Aaaand you have no idea how to shift on purpose, do you. Right.” The girl stared at her. “All right. Intia, did you know that the Cursed Lands and the Fey World are in the same place?” The child nodded. “Great. At the same time?” The child crinkled her nose, then shook her head. Ardent put the girl down on the ground and knelt herself, then shifted to straddle the mortal and fey lands. The mortal world was a wilderness here, scrub brush and sparse trees that overlaid Beauty’s well-ordered orchard. It was uncomfortable to be in both worlds at once, like balancing on a beam; the body was naturally inclined to tilt to one side or the other instead. Ardent kept her balance as she put her crystal ball down. She plucked a mortal-world leaf off a nearby bush, and held it up to Intia. “Do you see this leaf?”

The girl shook her head in blank incomprehension.

“All right. That’s because it’s a mortal leaf and you’re only in the fey world right now. But you can shift back to the Old World, if you want to. Or you can shift to see both, and pick and choose which things in which world you want to interact with,” Ardent said. The girl stared at her, mouth agape. “So there’s a leaf in my hand. I need you to focus on seeing it.” The child gave an uncertain nod, and screwed up her face as she stared at Ardent’s hand. The great satyr ran a blunt-tipped finger along the edge of the leaf. “This is its outline.” She traced the veins. “These are its veins. Do you—”

Intia gave a startled squeak. “Leaf!” She reached for it, then paused. At Ardent’s encouraging nod, Intia pinched the leaf’s tip between her little fingers. “Eee!”

Ardent released the leaf, leaving the child holding it. “Great job! Now, you see the wilderness around us?”

The child looked up, eyes going wide again. “Oh! Oh oh oh!” She spun around. “It’s glamour! I can see through it!”

“Uh. No, not really, but sure, let’s go with that. Now, I want you to see all-the-way through the Fey World. Pretend it’s not there at all, and that all that’s around you is the usual wilderness.”

Intia screwed up her face hard, and tugged at one black pigtail. “…yes, Grandmother.” She closed her eyes and opened them three times. “It’s gone! I’m in the Cursed Lands again!”

“Clever girl!” Ardent smiled, impressed by the child’s use of ritual in making the transition. There was nothing magical about shifting between the layers – or at least nothing that required aether, or fey ability. Any mortal could do it. Sometimes animals and even inanimate objects would make the shift, but most mortals didn’t understand how it worked. They’d often enter while straddling both, and then shift by accident to one or the other. It was confusing if you didn’t grow up doing it, and mortals of the Old World only had a chance to experience it for a few months every hundred and twelve years or so.

Intia blinked at Ardent. “But you’re still here, Grandmother Arventia?”

“Yup, I’m still here. I’m straddling both worlds, so you can see me from either. Do you recognize where you are in the Cursed Lands?”    

The girl turned around in a circle three times, nose scrunched up. “Um. A little? No?”

Ardent suppressed a sigh. “Ah well. Not to worry, kid.” She moved to sit cross-legged on the ground, and fussed at the crystal ball until she got it to produce a bird’s eye view of their surroundings. “Is that far enough out that you can find your…waitasec.” She drew the view further back, so it showed a kind of map of the fey shard for a few dozen miles in every direction. Then she traced the rune for “mark” above the surface of the crystal, then wrote out “mortal”. The scrying crystal put the rune for mortal (aha THAT’S what it is!) on the map in Beauty’s orchard, three runes for it in Relentless’s house, and one rune for mortal some thirty miles to the northeast. How, for the love of aether, did the boy manage to get so far into the Cursed Lands? “That’s gotta be him. Let’s go get Awni.” She offered her hand to Intia, and when the kid took it, Ardent boosted her up to her shoulders again and walked northeast, crystal ball out to navigate.

Twenty or thirty minutes later, they found Awni, still huddled with his arms around his legs in the dubious shelter of a scraggly bush. Intia leaped like a rabbit from Ardent’s shoulder and ran to him, scolding like a sister. “Why did you come here all alone, Awni? Do you know how worried your parents must be? Don’t you know it’s not safe in the Cursed Lands?” Awni, for his part, wrapped his arms around the girl’s waist and bawled against her chest. Ardent wasn’t good with the ages of mortal children, but guessed the boy was several years younger than Intia. She glanced down at the crystal to get her bearings for the return trip, and movement in the far northeast section caught her eye. It was a new “mortal” rune; she must have just gotten within range to see it in the last mile or two. That can’t be the baby. There is no way a baby traveled over, what, a hundred miles into the Cursed Lands? A mortal traveler, then? But they don’t usually go so far into the Broken Lands. The rune was almost on top of the Sun Etherium – could have even been inside it. As she watched, it disappeared from the map.

Ardent caught her breath. All right. Stay calm. There’s three possible explanations here. One: that was a mortal trader, and they went into some private space in the Sun Etherium, so my little scrying ball couldn’t track them any more. Two: The Sun Host, or someone in Sun Host, is stealing mortals and didn’t have the aether to cloak that one until getting them back to the Etherium. Three: someone or something just killed them.

Ardent clenched her free hand into a fist, then relaxed it to trace the runes for “mark”, “mortal”, and “death” over the crystal. Nothing appeared. She tried the spell a few other ways, just to be sure, but the crystal didn’t show her any changes. Not dead, at least.

The giant satyress looked at the embracing, tearful mortal children before her, and set her mouth. She knelt and gave them a smile, offering her hands. “All right, kids. Come along now, and let’s get you two back to your people.”

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The Sun lord closed his notebook and rose at her approach. He bowed with the fluid, flourishing grace of a Sun Etherium native. “Thank you for seeing me, my lady.” His pleasant tenor held a Sun courtier’s accent: precise and clear.

“Ardent’s fine, sugar,” she told him. He looked like a man in the prime of his life, but most fey chose to look young. He was clearly an adult, at least twenty, probably older given his mature deportment. But he could be no more than a hundred, judging by his name. Older Sun Host names all ended in vowel sounds. That made him less than half Ardent’s two hundred fifty years. He was fresh from Sun Etherium: so drenched in aether she could almost breathe it off of him, a palpable aura to fey senses, if not a visible one, as evident as the scent of male hormones and clean skin. He was a lovely example of the Sun Host type: human in shape save for elegantly elongated ears, with long limbs and a dancer’s build, lithe but strong. He had a heart-shaped face with sensual lips, and almond-shaped dark brown eyes. His skin was a natural hue, warm beige a couple of shades lighter than the mortals she’d just been speaking to, and hair distinctly unnatural: thick, rich indigo locks. He looked short to her, but centuries ago Ardent had trueshifted into a form over seven feet tall. Everyone looked short to her. He’d been taller than the mortals; perhaps a whisker under six feet. “Mirohirokon, you said?”

“Yes, my la – Ardent.” He colored as he corrected himself, an odd affectation in a Sun lord.

“My lady’s fine, too.” She smiled at him, and his stance relaxed as he acknowledged this consideration with a nod and a wry smile. “So, this a private matter? You wanna go somewhere less public?”

“If it pleases you, my lady, I would appreciate that.”

“Sure. C’mon.” She fell into her usual long strides. Mirohirokon walked quickly to keep up, but did so without effort. Her house was a quarter-mile away. It was of local stone, mottled tan-white, but the pristine and supernaturally resilient ceramic of its roof and casements had come from an Etherium. Though built to her height and breadth, it was otherwise of modest size, just three rooms. Familiar smells mingled inside, from leather and oils to fresh bread. She used the front room as a work room, not a parlor. Equipment and incomplete projects cluttered it; a work bench was the only seating. She cleared a heap of tack off the right side, and planted herself straddling it on the left. She gestured to the cleared side for him. “What’s on your mind, sugar?”

He accepted the offered seat on the bench, but sat normally, legs both on one side. The bench was sized for her and too high for him: his feet dangled like a child’s. Mirohirokon turned to face her. “The story is – complicated, to say the least. The short of it is: my father has been enslaved by Shadow of Fallen Scent, of the Moon Host, and taken to the Moon Etherium. I seek your assistance in rescuing him, my lady.”

She raised her eyebrows and blinked at him. “I’m gonna need the long version of this one, sweetie.”

He inclined his head. “My father and Shadow of Fallen Scent have both, for some decades, sought a particular legendary creature. Independently of one another, of course. They were, my father thought, both very close to locating it. In the Stone Forest, my father pinpointed a spot where conditions were right for one to nest. He asked for my aid at this point, and I went with him to the Stone Forest. Shadow of Fallen Scent was there as well. My father sent me on ahead to the site where the creature’s nest would be, while he moved to intercept Shadow of Fallen Scent.” Mirohirokon took a deep breath, and turned to face forward instead of meeting her eyes. “He pretended to believe that it was just the two of them there, in a race to the site. He offered her a deal: whichever of them claimed the legendary beast would possess the other as well. She accepted.”

“Because she already had it?” Ardent guessed. Mirohirokon nodded. “Yeah, I can’t see her going for that deal any other way. He should’ve backed out the moment she said yes. Sorry, sugar.” Mirohirokon turned one palm up and shrugged. Ardent grimaced. This was as bad as it had sounded from his précis. A Sun Host slave in Moon Etherium would be a tool of considerable power. He’d be wholly unable to work aether himself, but Fallen could use him as a channel to draw upon Sun Etherium’s power as well as Moon’s. It’d vastly increase her personal capabilities. In another fey, this would be less worrisome, but Fallen was not only power-hungry but personally vile. Ardent was disillusioned with the Moon Host, but they didn’t deserve Fallen armed with a deadly weapon among them. “So how’d you want me to help? Fallen’s not the type to give up a servant easily. Your legendary beast’d probably die first. What is this creature, anyhow?”

“That’s one of the complications. It’s a phoenix rose.”

Ardent stared at him. “What.”

“A phoenix rose, my lady. I didn’t know myself, until I found the plant it had bloomed from.” Mirohirokon kept his eyes on the opposite window, hands clenched in his lap. “My father wanted it to be a surprise.”

“Is this some kind of joke? Are you mad?” Ardent stood, towering over the smaller fey in her crowded work room. “Are we seriously talking about a for-real, actual, let’s-use-this-to-break-the-entire-world-OOPS, phoenix rose? Your dad found one of those? And now Fallen has it?”

“And my father. Yes.”

I take that back. This is much worse than the précis. “If that ain’t a disaster and a half.” Ardent rubbed one brown hand over her face.

“Yes,” Miro repeated, softly.

“Sorry, kid.” She touched his shoulder, and he looked to her, those expressive dark eyes shining with a pain that made her heart hurt. “I don’t mean to be insensitive. This is…a lot bigger than I expected.” Her mind spun, trying to work through the possibilities. It all seemed so improbable; she wondered if Mirohirokon was telling her the truth. Was this some Sun Host ploy to manipulate her? Into what?

“It’s…there’s more. My father left me his notes. His research into the phoenix rose.” Mirohirokon took the leather notebook from his pocket. “He’d considered the possibility that Fallen might get the better of him in this deal. But he specifically worded it so that it would only apply so long as she owned the phoenix rose. In the Sun Etherium, our queen would never allow such a thing to remain in private hands. I trust the same is true of the Moon?”

Ardent buried her fingers in her thick hair, pacing. “Yes. If the Moon Queen knew Fallen had it and wouldn’t give it up, there’d be a tower of outrage built over it. Fallen would be a pariah. We’d hear the screaming from here. Do you have any proof of this?”

“Other than my father’s enslavement? I can show you the plant where it bloomed, if that would help?”

She considered that. According to legend, the blooming of a phoenix rose was distinctive: a conflagration that left everything scorched save the bird’s host plant. But an Etherium fey would be able to mimic such aftereffects, and she didn’t have enough detailed knowledge that she’d be able to tell the difference. It didn’t need to be Mirohirokon’s deception: Fallen or even his father might have tricked him first. She shook her head. “What’s your mother think of all this?”

“Of my father’s predicament?” Mirohirokon gave a mirthless laugh. “‘He deserves it, the shiftless fool’. They did not get on.”

Ardent winced. She stopped pacing to lean against the worktable and eye her guest. As a rule, fey were skillful liars, but Ardent had spent over a century as Justiciar of the Moon Host. She was good at telling when people were lying to her, even fey. Mirohirokon wasn’t using glamour to feign or accentuate his distress. If anything, he was employing typical Sun Host mannerisms to cloak it. Her instincts said he believed everything he’d told her, but also that he was holding something back. Not a surprise, when one of the Sun Host was asking a barbarian for help. “Why me?” she asked. “Why some barbarian fey you don’t even know? Surely you have friends who’d help?”

“Friends with strong ties among the Moon Host? Who’d have any leverage inside the Moon Etherium at all?” A smile flickered on his lips and died as he shook his head. “I know you were Justiciar for them; I am sure you still have allies there. And I understand you have little love for Shadow of Fallen Scent.” He flashed another smile as she snorted at that. “I need your help, my lady. Ardent. Please.”

She looked away, not wanting to cave to the desperation in his voice. “What is your plan, then? If it’s ‘go ask Fallen nicely to release him from the bargain,’ I don’t think it’s going to work.”

“It won’t?” He feigned a considering look. “I see. Let me think. I suppose we shall have to get the phoenix rose away from her, then.”    

“That easy?”

“If it were easy, I wouldn’t need help.” He pushed a lock of indigo hair behind one ear. “But it’s a living being, and, according to my father’s notes, one with particular requirements. It’s not as if she could transmute it into a charm and wear it around her neck. It needs sunlight – natural sunlight – and air. And she won’t want the whole of the Moon Etherium to learn she has it, either, or we wouldn’t be the only ones trying to take it.”

“True.” She eyed him. “And if ‘we’ did get the phoenix rose, what happens to it then? What’s your interest in it?”

“My interest in it lies in not seeing my father enslaved to the most reviled member of Moon’s High Court. I have no desire for its power myself.”

“Then you’d be a good citizen of the Sun Host and give it to your queen?”

“No!” He recoiled at the suggestion. “Must I swear it three times? I do not want the phoenix rose for myself or the Sun Queen. I do not want the phoenix rose for myself or the Sun Queen. I do not want the phoenix rose for myself or the Sun Queen. I want my father free.”

Ardent raised her eyebrows at his vehemence, and the Sun lord looked away again. A statement repeated three times was not made lightly. It might not have the binding power of ritual bargain, but it would still have consequences for a fey who betrayed it. “All right, sugar. So. You go back to Sun Etherium and resign your affiliation there. Then we go to the Moon Etherium, affiliate ourselves with the Moon, and nose around until we find this thing?” They didn’t technically need to affiliate with Moon Host to use the Moon Etherium’s aether. Barbarian fey, who had no affiliation, could absorb and use aether in either Etherium. But an affiliate in their native Etherium absorbed aether faster and stored more, making their spell use more potent. Also, there were certain things, like using the sigils of ownership, that the unaffiliated could not do. If Ardent was pitting herself against Fallen with a Sun channel, she sure wasn’t doing it without affiliating with Moon first. She was a little surprised Miro hadn’t already resigned his Sun affiliation, but perhaps he wanted to be sure he’d have help first. The Etheriums were magical opposites; one could affiliate with either or neither, but not both.

“Something like that. But I won’t be affiliating myself with Moon.”    

She looked askance at him. “What’re you gonna be doing while I poke around in the Moon Etherium, then?”

“Oh, I’ll be with you. As a member of Sun Host.”

“Sugar,” she said, as gently as she could. “You can’t go into the Moon Etherium as Sun Host. You’d be helpless, completely unable to use the aether. I’m sure you think it’s bad out here in the Broken Lands, with the aether so thin, but it’s nothing like being the wrong Host in an Etherium. It’s not just that you can’t draw aether. You can’t store it either. Not even the slightest trickle. You wouldn’t be able to do the simplest spells, not to teleport or farspeak or even for glamour. Not even to evade, sugar. You’d be as vulnerable as a mortal. You walk into the Moon Etherium without renouncing Sun Host, and I guarantee you, you will end up as someone’s channel.”

“I know.” His hands clenched together in his lap. “I know.” Mirohirokon turned to her and met her eyes. “I planned to be yours.”

Ardent stared at him, mouth agape. “You cannot be serious.”

“Can I not? Fallen already has a channel in my father, and that’s not even mentioning the phoenix rose. We need some kind of edge to compete with that, and I cannot provide it as an ordinary fey of Moon Host. I will be of much more use to you as a channel.”

She sat heavily again on her end of the bench. It rocked beneath her weight; the Sun lord braced himself against the table to avoid sliding into her. “You – sugar, have you ever channeled for anyone before?” He nodded, and she added, “Anyone not of Sun Host?” At the shake of his head, she said, “Because it’s different with a barbarian. Even more so with the opposite Host. And in the wrong Etherium – sweetie, you don’t know what you’re offering.”

“I…” He swallowed. “You’re right. I don’t. I’ve never done this before. But I did not reach this conclusion lightly. My father was taken three days ago. I have done research. I know the theory of what’s involved, if not the practice. I know the risks. What I don’t know is a better way.” A smile flashed and faded on his lips. “I am open to suggestions.”

The worst of it was: he was right. To oppose Fallen, his faction would need an edge, and there was no better one. “Why me?” she said again. “Surely there’s someone in Sun Host you can trust. Someone who’d affiliate with Moon Host for you, someone you know that you could channel for.”

“There…isn’t. And even if there were, they wouldn’t know Moon Host. I’d still need you.”

“And this, this is how you’ll tempt me into accepting?”

“Perhaps,” he admitted, one corner of his mouth quirking up. His eyes were on hers, hopeful, afraid. “Is it working?”

Maybe. Ardent realized she was leaning towards him, sensing the stored aether that filled him, that overflowed, like a fine mist over his skin, or like water held in place by surface tension alone. She didn’t want to admit how tempting it was. “If I wanted power, I’d’ve joined the High Court,” she said, dryly. “Not become a barbarian.”

He dropped his eyes. “Heh. No, I suppose power would not hold much allure for you.”

But it did. It was true, what she’d said. She could have been on the High Court of the Moon Etherium, and she’d walked away from that with no regrets. She’d left a glorious abundance of aether that would let her make anything with a wave of her hand, for a rural life of hard labor for necessities. She’d had power, and given it up.

But not because she didn’t want it. Because it had never been enough power. Because it had come with so many strings attached, with so much petty, stupid, pointless nonsense. Give people invulnerability, immortality, and the power to turn their dreams into reality, and what did they do? Quibble over petty insults. Inflate a flea’s sneeze into a hurricane of self-important outrage. Plot elaborate social revenge for imagined slights. Sure, she’d had vast power, but it wasn’t enough to make the people around her listen to each other, or respect one another. They’d been given everything, and they acted like spoiled children in return, squandering it all to make one another miserable. Ardent didn’t miss any of that.

But she did miss the power.

And maybe a Sun Host channel would be enough power to make a real difference.

She shook her head, trying to clear it of such thoughts. No. I’m not re-affiliating just for aether. No matter how much of it. I can’t say ‘yes’ because I want power. Mirohirokon’s eyes were downcast again. He’d turned on the bench to face her, one leg pulled up on the bench before him, back still Sun-Host-erect. “Is he worth it?” she asked, softly.

“He’s my father,” Mirohirokon said. “I would do anything for him.” Another little quirk of his mouth. “Literally, it appears.”

I can’t say ‘no’ just because I don’t want power, either. “Give me your hand,” Ardent said, extending her own. He placed his palm against hers, without question or hesitation. His hand was small, fingers long and soft in contrast with her thick, calloused ones. She wrapped fingers and thumb loosely around his slender wrist, her palm against the pulse of his artery. The currents of aether within him sung against her skin, beckoning. “If we’re gonna do this, sugar – and I’m not saying we are, but if we do – I need to know what it’s like to channel from you first. And so do you. So I’m gonna channel a li’l now, all right?”

“Certainly.” He met her eyes with an unwarranted trust. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet, kid. I haven’t agreed to anything.”

“You’ve given me your time, and listened to me,” he pointed out. “And I thank you for that consideration, which I’ve done naught to earn.”

“Don’t think your pretty Sun Host courtesies are gonna score any points with an old barbarian, boy,” she said, gruffly, because she was afraid that they were. Mirohirokon only smiled at her, unintimidated. “Let me know if it hurts, all right, sugar?” He nodded.

Ardent took a deep breath, and called to the aether.

She expected resistance. That he was consciously willing and consenting didn’t mean his body would readily surrender its aether to another.

But there was no tension, no internal struggle. Instead, he felt open and yielding beneath her fingers, aether released to flood into her parched body. She braced her free arm against the bench between them to keep herself from falling against him. She’d been thirsty so long she’d forgotten how good it felt to be quenched. Receiving from a channel, from another fey, was always sweeter than drinking in the rich air of the Etherium. More focused, more concentrated. But this, this was something beyond even that pleasure. It was as if the aether had been filtered by his body, the impurities leeched away, leaving a flavor that was pure, refined. Delicious.

She’d told him, told herself, that she would only take a little. Just to see how he held up to it. To learn how much he’d resist, how hard it would be. But the sense of power in him, the steady pulse against her palm, drew her deeper. He held so much, much more than she’d expected, and she plunged deeper. At the center of the current, she felt the well within, the connection between him and the Sun Etherium itself, capped off but still far larger than anything she’d anticipated.    

The shock of realization jolted her from the aether-trance, and she jerked backwards, gasping.

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After his father’s capture, Mirohirokon spent almost three full days in the Sun Etherium, waiting for word he knew would not come, soliciting aid he knew he would not find. By afternoon on the third day, he’d endured all he could stomach. He gathered his aether, made sure all his enchantments were fully charged, and returned to the Broken Lands.

This time he headed southwest, for Try Again, a barbarian hamlet over a hundred miles from the Sun Etherium.

Here, the Broken Lands were hospitable, even pleasant. The barbarian farms of the fey shard were on gentle, terraced slopes. Some were already harvested and bare save for broken stalks littering rich dark loam, while others had crops still ripening. This developed landscape contrasted with the wilderness of the Old World, the mortal plane that the fey shard overlay. The Old World here was a rolling prairie of tall grasses and scrubby bushes. Although it had been a hundred years since the fey shard had last overlain this particular world, the mortals here still considered these lands cursed.

For most of the journey, Mirohirokon stayed on the roads of the fey shard and didn’t interact with mortal land. But when the gentle fey hills became steep, he shifted to the flat underlying mortal world and walked the prairie wilderness instead of following the winding fey road. Even with that shortcut, if he’d had to make the journey unassisted by aether, it would’ve taken five days.

Equipped with his walking boots, Miro reached the outskirts of Try Again in little more than an hour.

The hamlet was a farming community, with single houses set apart on several acres of cultivated crop lands and fenced pastures. A few of the homes had been built entirely of natural materials, or at least pretended they were: little cabins of logs, plain off-white stone, and hard orange-brown bricks. Others must have been made in the Sun or Moon Etherium, and relocated or assembled on site: an elegant ivory pagoda; a translucent palace made in miniature, perhaps a hundred feet long with towers no more than thirty feet high; a marble dome raised on columns, with crystal windows between each. Most were somewhere between: small, tidy structures made primarily of wood and stone, but with glass windows and fused-tile roofs that would never leak or sag.

Well shy of what passed for the heart of Try Again, Miro stopped. From an inner pocket of his jacket, he produced a scrying mirror and a notebook with a leather cover, both about the size of his palm. With one finger, he sketched the rune for “person” in the air above the mirror. It showed him the nearest other fey: a beefy squirrel-tailed man clinging to the side of a house as he fixed a crooked shutter. Miro opened the notebook to a page of sketches and names, and set it in the air before him, where it hung unsupported. He flicked his fingers over the mirror, switching from one person in Try Again to the next. Many of the barbarian fey of Try Again were emigrants from the Moon Etherium, where tastes in shape and size were far more eclectic than in Sun Etherium. In the Sun Etherium, most fey wore human-like shapes with elongated ears. They were taller than humans, granted, and more muscular. God-like versions of the race, perhaps, who wore the occasional affectation of horns or tails, and came in a variety of colors and hues, but still recognizable as all the same species. Here, Miro saw a tusk-mouthed ogre; two different small, slim centaurs – one more equine and the other more cervine; a six-armed naga with fey upper body and a snake tail in place of legs, entwined about a tree as she implanted cuttings; a chubby aquatic-adapted fey with webbed feet and hands fishing in the river; and more: an astonishing variety, especially for individuals who had to have trueshifted into such forms.    

It did make it easy to locate the specific fey he sought, among people so wildly different. While there were a dozen or two fey in the human-like shapes of the Sun Host, there was only one man with the head and tail of a horse, and while there were three different satyrs, only one of them was a towering female figure with rich, warm brown skin. Miro made a rune-mark on the scrying mirror over both the horse-headed man and the last satyr, as he came to them. After he reached the satyr, he closed the notebook and tucked it away.

Miro scrutinized the final figure, still shown in the mirror. She sat on a bench in a small park at the heart of Try Again, with a few buildings visible in the background. A naga was with her, this one with only two arms, and three nervous-looking mortal men stood before them. Even seated, she was almost as tall as the mortals. Her hooved, goat-like legs were bare of adornment save their fur, and too long for the bench. They stretched before her, crossed at the ankles. She wore a sleeveless off-white chiton draped over powerful shoulders and covering a copious bosom. The garment belted at the waist and ended at her thick-furred thighs. She had masses of curly black hair held back by gold combs, and two small horns on her forehead. Gold crescent earrings adorned her caprine ears, and a wide gold necklace encircled her throat. Her expression was open and kind, smiling as she talked to the nervous mortals. Miro watched her for a few moments. The mortals relaxed as they spoke to her. Miro lifted one hand to make the gesture to let him hear their conversation through the mirror, then aborted the motion. He shook his head and snapped the scrying mirror’s cover closed over the image. He squared his shoulders, oriented himself, and crossed the remaining distance to the village park.


Mirohirokon halted in the lee of a house near the village center, and clicked his heels to disable the walking boots’ enchantment. The satyress was taking pains to put those mortals at ease; no need to throw unnecessary magic in their face and alarm them all over again. Besides, walking the last twenty yards at a normal pace would give him a moment to evaluate the woman with soulsight and adjust his plans accordingly.

He turned the corner of the building with determined strides, looked to the group, and staggered to a halt.

Mortals’ souls appeared ordinary enough: radiant, translucent shapes primarily in healthy colors. But smears of sickly yellow-green marred them, suggesting issues with greed on one, and a struggle with laziness in another. Nothing Miro would condemn anyone for: everyone struggled. The oldest of the men had a wide streak of gangrenous corruption, indicative of cruelties he’d enacted, slashed deep into his soul. Miro didn’t like the look of it, but he’d seen worse. Far worse, and recently. The naga looked solid and likeable: his soul’s radiance wasn’t strong, but it had few dim parts and only modest fragments of sickly green in it.

But the satyress…

She was glorious.

Her soul had a sparkling radiance he’d never seen before on anyone. It was a bonfire of red and orange that refracted like a rainbow. No wonder she made the mortals more relaxed: their souls bent towards her glow like flowers turning to the sun. No sickly colors smeared streaks into her soul, no dull spots, no corruption. In the forty-four years he’d had soulsight, he’d never seen a soul so shockingly clean, so astonishingly beautiful. He wished he was not the only fey who had soulsight, that he could share this wondrous vision with someone.

“Well, hello, stranger,” she drawled, and Miro flushed at how long he’d been staring at her. “You all right?”

He forced himself to nod, to look away from her magnificence. “…yes.” He moved to her, drawn to that glow. Even the obligations of her soul that flowed from her nape floated in crisp and regular lines. Even the strings her soul held in her hands glittered. This isn’t possible. No one can be that perfect. “You are Ardent Sojourner?”

“Sure am, sugar. You needing something in particular? Kinda in the midst of sorting a few bits and bobs with these folks, here.” She gestured with a little wave to the mortals. The naga was giving him a flat stare made more effective by yellow eyes with slit pupils.

Miro stopped himself short, and drew back into a bow. “Of course. My apologies for the interruption. I am Mirohirokon of the Sun Host. If I might beg for a moment of your time, whenever is convenient for you?”

“Sure you can. Afraid I don’t have a fancy parlor for you to wait in, sweetie, but you’re welcome to have a looksee around our little park while I take care of things. Be with you in a whisker-twitch. Oh, stop glaring at the Sun lord and be nice, Relentless,” she added, poking the other fey’s serpentine lower body with the tip of one cloven hoof. Relentless made a face at her, but did stop glowering at Miro. Ardent added something in apologetic tones to the mortals. They answered in their own tongue, rapid not-quite-alien sounds that Miro could make no sense of. Her warm contralto voice made the language sound like music; even without knowing what she said, he itched to stay and listen.

Instead, Miro delivered another bow and murmured his thanks to avoid interrupting her again, then moved to the far side of the park. His mind churned with an internal argument. This changes everything.

No, it changes nothing.

She’s perfect. The Guide must have sent me to her.

She is not perfect. Good, yes, obviously she’s a good person. Obviously she’s a great person. That’s not the same as being flawless. Take another look, you’ll see. No, not right now, you idiot. Let her alone for fifteen minutes. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if she’s got great judgment and an excellent moral compass and the courage to act upon it. It’s probably worse that she has those things, because why would she trust you?

But if she will help me… It didn’t matter what his reason said. His heart felt a dozen times lighter in his chest. For the first time, what he planned to do next felt like not just something he had to do, but something that he could do.

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“Shh. It’ll be fine.” The fey man stroked the head of the owl perched on his shoulder. Despite the reassurance, the bird’s head circled one way and then the other. They were alone in the Broken Lands, surrounded by a silent forest of stone spires whose jagged tips lanced the darkening sky. The last purple-red light of the sun was dying in the west as a full moon rose in the distant east. The dry, dusty air nourished little: some lichen along the northwest sides of the spires, and the occasional scrubby bush. A few spindly but determined trees made stark shadows on the eastern horizon.

Petting his owl absently, the fey focused on a scrying crystal in his other hand. The sphere showed, one after another, different sections of a landscape similar to their own surroundings. At first, each scene was empty of animate life. Then it showed the figure of a tall fey woman with silver fox ears and a long lush tail tipped in black. Her attention was split between the small white dog leashed by a silver chain that she was following, and a scrying mirror in her other hand.

The fey man exhaled; with a twist of his hand, image and scrying crystal both vanished. “Well, here we are, Mirohiro. Go.” The owl’s wings shifted, and the fey transferred him from shoulder to gloved wrist and raised him. “You know what to do. Go!” The owl took wing, silent and hard to see as he angled upward towards one of the stone spire tips.

With arms outstretched, the man’s outline blurred, then his form shrank and shifted. In an eyeblink, a sparrow hovered at shoulder height where the man had stood. The bird darted between stone spires. Soon, he saw through sparrow eyes the same fox-tailed woman he’d spotted in his crystal orb.

The woman dropped the leash and shifted into a raven’s shape. Her wings flapped as she rose, circling.

The sparrow flew forward with a fresh burst of speed. “Shadow of Fallen Scent!” he called out to her. “What a pleasure to find you here!” The raven’s head twitched in his direction, but she continued to ascend undeterred. “Oh, don’t rush away! Surely you can spare a moment for an old friend.”

The raven circled the twisted stone pillar a few feet above him. “I’m sorry,” she answered at last. “Do I know you?”

“Oh, of course, where are my manners? I am Jinokimijin of the Sun Host. We’ve met before. At the Convocation of 1220 we shared a dance on the Lily Pavilion. Do you recall?”

She laughed, and her ascent slowed fractionally. Jino struggled to catch up. “Naturally. Jinokimijin the Disgraced; I should have known it was you. What are you failing at today, Jino?”

The sparrow chuckled, self-consciously. “I daresay I’ve succeeded at the same thing you have, Fallen. May I call you Fallen?”

“You may not.” The raven eyed him warily, still rising.

“Excellent. Surely it’s no coincidence that we’re both here, Fallen. Flying around this same stone pillar, when the fey shard coincides with the Old World, and sun and moon stand in perfect opposition. Literal sun and moon, that is. No need for opposition between our respective Hosts, I’m sure.”

“Oh, I know it’s not a coincidence, Jino. You’re following me. Do you think you can catch me, your highness? Forgive me: your former highness.”

Jino flapped his wings harder. “Maybe. Do we need to make this a race, Shadow of Fallen Scent? We both know the potential of a phoenix rose. We’re both here for it. We could share.”

She cocked her head, as if considering for a moment. “No.” She flew higher.

“You must be tempted!” Jino shouted after her. “Think of all the work we’ve duplicated! Think of all we could teach one another. Do you know how the Moon Etherium formed?”

The raven slowed, and Jino almost closed the gap between them. “Do you?” she asked.

“Share this find with me, and I’ll share everything I know with you,” Jino offered.

“You don’t.” Fallen dismissed him and rose again.

“Wait wait wait. All right. If this is going to be a race – well, we should still be on the same side, whoever wins. Whichever of us possesses the phoenix rose, let that one be served by the other.”

The raven turned, and spiraled in a tight circle above the sparrow. “Are you offering yourself as my slave, Jinokimijin?”

The sparrow wobbled in the air as he tried to meet Fallen’s gaze. “Only when – and if – you gain the phoenix rose, my lady. If it falls to my hands instead – well. I suppose you could say you’d be mine.”

Fallen laughed again, a sharp, staccato sound in her raven’s throat. “Very well. I accept your bargain.”

Jino staggered in the air. “You do?”

With a glance at the spire they flew beside, she chose a spot along one of its winding curves to land. She resumed her fox-tailed human shape. “I do. Shall we formalize it, Jino? You haven’t changed your mind, have you?”

“No…no. I haven’t.” His eyes flicked upwards, to the still-distant peak. Then he dropped into place next to her. His man’s shape was taller than hers by some inches, and broad-shouldered; height and strength were fashionable in the Sun Etherium at present. He had gold-dusted brown skin, long golden hair bound in a narrow queue, and the elongated ears with pointed tips that were common among the fey. He wore a long formal jacket with a jagged, asymmetrical fastening down the front, and no jewelry save a hoop earring of white gold, studded by rubies.

Fallen had produced a short silver knife from a pocket in a gauzy overskirt that swirled over her trousers. Without a wince, she sliced open her own right palm and watched him with ice blue eyes in a gray face. She had a fox’s whiskers, white and almost invisible against her skin where they grew, but dark at the tips.

Jino slashed his own palm and they clasped arms, palm to wrist.“Whichever of us possesses the phoenix rose, the other will be bound to serve. Only the one in possession of the phoenix rose may choose to release us from this binding.”

Fallen repeated his words, squeezing his wrist. They repeated the oath a second time together, this time touching blooded palm to opposite wrist. For the third recitation, each rested their own palm against the other’s throat.

“Shall we race, my lady?” Jino still held his hand against Fallen’s throat. A trickle of blood leaked down the side of her bare neck. A droplet fell from the smear of blood she’d left on his wrist.

Fallen laughed again, revealing sharp white teeth. “Oh, I don’t think so.”

His eyes darted to the peak. “…uh. My lady?”

“Do you think I don’t know what you were doing, your former highness?”

A faint sheen of sweat formed on his forehead. “Making a bargain with you?”

“You are going to be such an adorable slave, Jino.” She smiled, baring her fangs. “I know you’ve been stalling for time. I know about your owl. I know you’ve been waiting for him to come back with the phoenix rose for you.” A long, mournful hoot cut through the twilight gloom. “And there it is! Right on schedule. Except for one teensy-eensy problem.” The owl swooped past their perch on the spire.

Its talons were empty.

“I already have the phoenix rose,” Fallen pulled her hand from his throat, and it came away holding a silver chain. Jino lifted his own hand to his neck to touch the hard silver collar now formed around it. “I acquired it two days ago. I only came back today to collect the roots of its nest-plant. Really, Jino, how stupid do you think I am? Do you think I’d take the slightest chance of becoming your servant?” Silver cuffs formed about his wrists; a chain linking them pulled his hands together. “You thought you were clever enough to fool me? You, Disgraced Jinokimijin? You’re not even clever enough to stay married.” Fallen pulled on the chain to his collar, dragging his head down to bow before her. “Perhaps it’s a good deal for you after all, though. You’re not actually fit for any higher position in society, are you? Call back your bird.”

Jino blinked, his head still bowed. “What?”

“Call back your bird! You belong to me; it may as well too.”

Jino lifted his head and peered into the gloom. The owl had circled a few times while Fallen was talking, but now it was winging away. “Come back?” he said, half-heartedly. Fallen glowered at him and wrapped a loop of the leash about her knuckles. Jino swallowed and yelled, “Come back! Rohi! Rohi, come!”

The distant owl wheeled in the air to face them. Jino whistled. “That’s it, Rohi! Come here!” He whistled again, but the owl had continued its circle and was flying off again.

“Oh, seriously! Can’t you leash it?”

Jino raised his bound arms and flicked one wrist up: a length of leather tether spun out of aether, snaking towards the owl. The bird dodged the tether and continued to fly on. “Sorry, my lady. I guess I’m not a very good animal trainer, either.”

She gave him a skeptical look. “Then I’ll have to find some other use for you. Perhaps you’ll make an adequate whipping boy. Come along, pet.”


The owl soared out of the forest of stone spires as the moon rose higher in the sky. The ground turned from cracked stone to scrub over the course of a mile or so, and then, suddenly, a hill covered in tall grasses rose over the brush. The owl dropped to the level of the hill top, flight wobbling badly. Legs extended, the bird spread its wings to brake, but was still going too fast when the shift wore off. In an instant, a fey figure with golden skin and indigo hair replaced the owl in the air. Human legs struck the ground, arms flailed for balance against the momentum, and then he tumbled through tall fragrant grass. Mirohirokon rolled to a graceless halt a half-dozen yards later, breathing heavily, with no bruises or marks to show for the abuse. Seed fluff shaken loose from the plants drifted around him.

He lay on his back and stared at the night sky. Miro knew he’d pushed it, holding the shape so long. He was better than most at storing aether when outside of the Etherium, but there were still limits. He just wanted to still be an owl. It was easier that way: easier not to think about what had happened, about what he had to do next.

About how it had felt to see his father in chains.

Don’t think about that. It’s done, it’s too late for recriminations now. Just keep moving. You know what you have to do.

Miro climbed to his feet, and clicked his heels to activate the enchantment in his boots; they had their own aether source. Then he took a step forward that arced him through the air with such speed that when his foot came down he was almost ten yards away. Another step, just as swift, and another.

Just keep moving. You can do this.

You have to.

May the Guide lead you on your Path now, Dad. And me too.

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