Jan. 20th, 2017

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For Ardent’s sake, Miro concealed his disappointment at her decision not to channel more aether. He didn’t bother trying to pretend to himself. He couldn’t even convince himself that being stupidly, hopelessly in love with the satyress was a mistake, or making a miserable situation worse. Ardent was the one bright spot, the one thing that gave him hope and confidence in this desperate fool’s gambit. If the price he had to pay for that was unrequited love for her: so be it. He did have to remember not to harass her with his unreciprocated affections, though. Alienating her with unwanted attention would be self-sabotage.

Hence: pretend you are not disappointed. You have no right whatsoever to be disappointed.

Ardent brought them to the base of the northwest slope, but they had to hike up it on foot. The perimeters of the farms were warded against teleporting, because the use of magic around the crops would tamper with their flavor. It was a steep climb along a dirt track, but even without the direct use of aether, Miro did not find it arduous. His body was in peak physical condition – not from any particular use of it, but simply because “peak physical condition” was how he’d designed his homunculus and accordingly what Ardent had restored him to. Ardent was equally at ease; her cloven hooves were as sure as any mountain goat’s as they made the ascent. It struck him, suddenly, that since she had been a barbarian, she must have earned the thick muscles on display in her bare arms, the breadth of her shoulders, the flex of back muscles beneath her chiton, and her certain, effortless stride. She’d made no visible alterations that were more than skin-deep since their arrival, not even under Threnody Katsura’s criticisms. He wondered if Ardent’s ample, inviting breasts had been by her own intent, before she’d left Moon Etherium, or if they’d been shaped by her time in Try Again. There was something mesmerizing about the sway of them as she hiked up the slope. This entire line of thought falls under ‘unwanted attention’, he reminded himself. Even if you’re not saying it out loud. Stop. To distract himself, he asked, “Do they use golems to tend the orchard?”

“Sparingly. There’s a whole science behind measuring and managing the level of aether exposure.” The aethcacao trees grew tall to either side of them, towering over even Ardent. Large green oval leaves on slender branches partly concealed the ripening cacao pods budding along the trunks, big heavy fruits in yellows, oranges, and reds. Upslope, even taller trees cast shade over the whole of the orchard. The air smelled of rich earth but not of cocoa; the small white-and-purple flowers on the trunks had little scent.

Up the slope, a fey voice called out to them. “Ardent Sojourner, by the cycle continuing! Is it really you? What brings you to my farm?” Miro looked up, and then higher, to spot a fey clinging near the top of one tree. The farmer had a lower body like a spider’s, though with only six legs radiating from his cephalothorax. From the front of the cephalothorax rose a man’s torso, with four arms. The whole figure was flamboyantly colored, in deep iridescent blue with red and gold accents, reminiscent of a peacock spider. He had an attractive soul, pink with some corrupt striations from carelessness and indifference, but generally wholesome.

Ardent stopped and squinted at him, perhaps using a spell to identify him by his aether signature, which could not be changed. “Uhhh…Dragon Rampant?!” she said, incredulously.

The spider-centaur chuckled. “The same!” He scuttled limberly down the tree and threaded the orchard to join them. He was shorter than Miro, though more massive, given the extra limbs and counterbalancing abdomen. Presumably Dragon Rampant was trueshifted into his form so that it wouldn’t require active aether. There was a limit on the quantity and type of mass one could add or remove with a trueshift. Shifting could make one as small as a mouse or large as a dragon, but unlike a trueshift it used aether continuously. Ardent’s natural adult shape must have been over six feet, given her substantial trueshift size.

“That is some form!” Ardent craned to one side. “Let me have a look at you,” she said. Dragon Rampant did a neat rotation, all six legs moving to turn him in a circle in place. “How long have you worn it? You’ve got fantastic control!”

“Eight years now, and let’s not talk about how many times I almost gave up on it in the first year. Every now and then I still forget to just walk and try to think about how to do so instead, and this is always, always a mistake. Such a mistake. But I was so sick of always wishing I had more hands to hold tools, or more legs to hang on with, and do you know what?”

“Now you have enough?” Ardent guessed.

“No! I still want more hands.” Dragon Rampant laughed, waving all four in the air. “I’m stopping here for now, though. I’d have to trueshift smaller to get more material for the bones and such, and this is short enough.”

“Heh. Eight years, huh? Have you actually been male for eight whole years or do you still change that?”

“Oh, no, I switch genders half the time that I’m in town. Still don’t understand the appeal of monogender. What’ve you got against males?”

“Nothing! I like males fine. I just don’t particularly want to be one.”    

“But you make such an impressive one.” He gestured with his hands, indicating her height and breadth.

She makes an impressive female, too. Miro bridled at the implied criticism of Ardent, even as he recognized that her friend was teasing and she was unperturbed. “When did you have a male shape?” he asked her, by way of diversion.

“Oh, I don’t know. The occasional come-as-you-aren’t party?”

“‘Come as you aren’t’?” Miro asked.

“Yeah, where you take a very different body from your usual? Don’t they have those in Sun Etherium?”

“We do, but they’re called masquerades.”

“Oh, our masquerades are when everyone shows up as one of their friends and you try to guess who’s really who based on how they act,” Ardent said, and then glanced to Dragon Rampant. “Sorry, where’re my manners? This’s my servant, Mirohirokon of the Sun Host.” The two men exchanged civilities, then Ardent explained the reason for her visit. “So I’ve got a Sun Host channel now and figure I’ll hang around the Etherium for a while, but I’ve gotten to enjoy, y’know, actually doing things and not just ‘let me think about doing a thing but never mind aether will do it for me’. Figured I’d come talk to some of the aether-crop-farmers and see if I’d like doing some of that now and again.”

The cover story was not intended to fool Shadow of Fallen Scent. If Fallen heard about this visit, she was bound to know the reason they were nosing about cacao orchards. At best, Fallen might wonder if Ardent was being manipulated instead of assisting Miro outright. But mostly, the ruse was to distract anyone else who might be paying attention to their movements. If Ardent did not give some excuse for her investigation, rumormongers would invent one. It would complicate matters further if anyone else figured out there was a phoenix rose in the Moon Etherium.

Dragon Rampant was more than happy to talk. He led them up to his house and fed them processed samples of his crop while chatting. One such product was a fermented beverage made from aethcacao pulp. “Though I don’t like grinding or brewing or cooking enough to do a whole lot of it,” he said. “It’s just a hobby. Mostly I sell the raw beans.”

“Is business good? Do folks hike up here to buy or do you deliver?” Ardent asked.

“Duty yes, I make em come to me. It’s enough trouble growing and harvesting. Sometimes I make customers harvest their own. Who wants to work that hard?”

“Hah! You’re lucky you can get customers to come to you.”

“We’re not all fool enough to try the full barbarian life, girl. Semi-barbaric’s bad enough.”

“Seems like that’d make it harder to get new customers.”

“Oh, I’ve got a dozen regulars that’ve bought up my entire crop for years now.”

“Loyalty! All of it?”

“Yup. Last four years I haven’t even produced as much as all of them wanted. They make up the difference from the other farms.”    

Miro sipped at the cacao-pulp wine – it had a dry, fruity flavor that was almost entirely unlike cocoa – and listened as Ardent continued the conversation. She asked about the competition, what other crops were popular, the kind of work involved, potential for employment (“Ardent, if you’re offering to work for me, you’re hired now, let’s get started.” “Heh, thanks, think I’m gonna check my options and consider it a whisker more before I commit.”) and general gossip in the local produce industry. Before they were done, Miro himself was wondering if her interest in the Etherium farms was sincere.

After they left, they hiked to the adjacent orchard and spoke with two of the farmers working it. They also hadn’t had any new customers recently. Miro was impressed by the ease with which Ardent steered the next conversation as well, hitting on her desired answer naturally, without showing any sign that it was her goal. By the time they finished at that orchard, the sun was setting.

“Better wait til tomorrow to check the last farm,” Ardent said, as they made their way down the slope. “Sorry, sugar. Maybe there’ll be some news on the property front.”



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After they had left the cacao orchard, Ardent teleported them back to her suite and made the gesture to accept messages again. She flopped onto her stomach on a couch and picked through the horde of messengers that swarmed in, looking for the ones she cared about most. She wrinkled her nose as she read the one from her Archivist friend, White Rose. “Hmph. Fallen is not the registered owner of any sky or tower-top properties. Which doesn’t mean she doesn’t own any from a private transaction.” She conjured her farspearker surface. “I’ll ask the Archivist if there’ve been any recent sky or tower transactions from anyone. You got any other angles to pursue, sugar?”

“I don’t know.” Miro walked to the dining table and leafed through his father’s notebook again. “She might have someone babysitting it, and apparently not my father, if today is any example to go by. She has strings on a lot of people, I imagine, but probably not many she’d trust with that secret.”

“I’d make that ‘not anyone’. Does it need a babysitter? She can watch it by scryer, and set farspeaker alerts for it, and port in herself to check on it if anything turned up.”

“True.” Miro took a seat at the table, still reading. “What story are you giving your Archivist to explain your new interest in real estate?”    

“Mm? Oh, them and I go way back. I don’t need to give them reasons – it’s all public records anyway, kinda the point – and I asked them not to tell anyone I was asking. They won’t talk.” Ardent checked through the rest of her messages. One was from the Queen’s adjunct. “Oh, Duty.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Skein is throwing a welcome-home party. Argh,” she said. At Miro’s blank look, she added, “Skein of the Absolute. Queen of the Moon Host.”

“You refer to your Queen by nickname?”

“Don’t you?”

“Ugh. No.” He made a face.

“But she’s your mother.”

“And I’m her eleventh-favorite child. And she’s my second-favorite parent. Or seventh, more accurately; I’d sooner count her other husbands as parents. When is the party?”

“Tomorrow night. And it’s utterly inescapable. I’ll have to go, and I’ll have to bring you, and there will be mobs of people who will all expect me to talk to them. Some of them in private. Persistence,” she cursed again. “I might want to leash you just so well-wishers can’t drag us apart.”

Miro smiled, touching his collar. “At least I can flee here if need be.”

“Yeah.” Ardent glanced to him. I need to make a farspeaker he can use. And for that, I need to channel. Her tongue flicked out, licking her teeth at the thought. She dug her fingers into the couch cushion as she wrestled down a surge of formerly-banked desire. Justice. What is wrong with me? …huh. Maybe I should find out. She dispatched another message to White Rose, then answered some of the myriad messages from friends. When White’s answer came back, she sat up. “I’m gonna go visit White Rose – that’s the Archivist – in person. You wanna come?”

“Certainly. You wish to review the property records yourself?” He rose to join her.

“No, I’m good on White doing that for me. This is kinda tangential research.” She stood and took Miro’s hand. “I thought I knew enough about channeling already, but it’s gotten real clear that no, I don’t. I’ve not one clue what I’m doing. Someone must’ve written about Sun-to-Moon channeling, before the Sundering if nothing else. White’s got the largest archive in the Moon Etherium, so if anyone has documentation on how this works, it’ll be them.”

He gave her another of those irresistible smiles of his. Oh boy do I ever need more information. “An excellent plan, my lady. Lead on.”



Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.
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The Moon Etherium’s archive was a round tower, perhaps sixty feet in diameter, lined by bookshelves and cabinets that stretched out of eyesight far above. It had neither stairs nor ladders, although perches and platforms of varying sizes extended from the walls at regular intervals, forty or so feet apart. Ardent and Miro had arrived at the base, near a set of shelves that held a dozen statues of winged lemurs, each perhaps a foot and a half tall. The floor level had seating, including a cushioned ring wider than a bed that ran most of the wall. The lowest shelves that held books were ten feet above it.

“Hullo, White!” Ardent shouted, to no one visible. She wandered over to the lemur statues. “Huh. The index used to be here. Are you lot the new index?”

One of the lemurs animated, and nodded to her.

“Huh. I’m looking for something on channeling between opposite hosts. Moon Etherium affiliate channeling from Sun Etherium affiliate, or vice versa, I suppose. Where do I go?”

“You don’t,” a voice boomed from above. Miro looked up to see a vast red dragon with a thirty-foot wingspan descending upon them in a tight spiral. The rich aether of the Moon Etherium swirled around the dragon, tendrils pulled in to sustain an otherwise impossibly large shift. White rose tattoos bloomed along red flanks, long thorny stems intertwined down to the tail tip. The dragon was missing the lower half of their left foreleg, as if amputated from just below the knee. The amputation was an unusual affectation; the same shift which gave this individual dragon form could easily have restored a missing limb. They had no visible sex characteristics, but even Miro’s dulled senses could detect the mixture of male and female hormones in their scent. The mix was wholly unlike the genderless scent of a child or neuter shape, and not distinctly male or female. Unimpeded by the absent forefoot, White Rose landed neatly on a perch above the shelves of lemur statues. They craned their long neck down to just above Ardent’s head. “That’s what the golems are for. I’ve had enough of fey idiots tromping through my hoard, re-shelving my books in the wrong place, and making an enormous mess of everything. You want something, the lemurs can get it for you. Stay put.”

Ardent reached up to pat the dragon’s nose. “Hey, great to see you too, White.”

A serpentine tongue flicked out and licked her arm. “And you, Ardent.” Yellow eyes turned to Miro. “And you’re Prince Mirohirokon.” White Rose pronounced his name in proper Sun Etherium style: Mee-roh-hee-roh-cone. The dragon had an interesting soul, a mixture of clear, intense colors and dull patches, with a strong gangrenous tentacle of greed snaking through it, alongside spreading tendrils of arrogance and pride. They and Ardent shared strings upon one another: the bright, healthy connections of long friendship, untainted by unwanted obligation. The dragon had a collection of other strings, but owed few obligations.

Miro bowed. “Mirohirokon is fine. The ‘prince’ is rather out of place, under the circumstances. A pleasure to meet you, noble dragon.” 

White Rose answered with a little snort. Ardent was explaining her request in more detail to the lemurs, several of whom had clustered closer to her to listen. One gave a little squeak and flew up, while the rest still attended. “Do you know Sudesunene?” White asked Miro.

“Yes, she’s the Sun Etherium’s archivist.”

“Is she still? Good. How is her collection?”

“Pitifully small and woefully inadequate to the needs of a modern Etherium, due to the callous disregard of a decadent, indifferent Sun Host for the value of true learning,” Miro answered. “Without Lady Sudesunene, the culture and history of Sun Etherium would have been lost beyond hope of recall centuries ago. Or so she has informed me on many occasions.”

The dragon laughed. “Wonderful!”

“She’s working on a project to have golems translate the written Old World tongue to ours,” Miro added. “It is a source of endless frustration to her. She loves it.”

“Oh?” Draconic fan-ears widened, tilting towards him. Ardent had finished instructing the lemurs and a dozen or so were winging about the tower in search of materials. “Does she have any results yet?”

“Yes. The phrasing is awkward, but reasonably intelligible.”

“How delightful. Perhaps I will write her and see if we cannot arrange an exchange. When you see her again, be sure to tell her of the immense superiority of my hoard.” A negligent wave of their tail toward the stacks that yawned above them. “Through dedication, one may overcome even the indifference and ignorance of the masses.”    

“If I see her again, I shall, noble fey.” Miro bowed. “I am sure she will find it…inspiring.”

“Indeed.” The dragon snorted a puff of aether from their nostrils. The first lemur returned, a book almost as large as it was in its hands. Ardent accepted the volume with polite thanks. “I will leave you to your inquiries. Remember: no flying around my archive. And that includes you, Ardent.” They tapped their chin against the top of her head for emphasis.

Ardent flopped the book open in one hand, and scritched the underside of White Rose’s jaw with the other. “You got it, sugar. Thanks for letting us in.” The dragon chuckled, patted her back with their only forefoot, and then leaped into the air again, flying upwards with lazy wingbeats, on a current of aether.

Another lemur came back, this one with a box of correspondence instead of a book. “Ooooh, doesn’t that look intriguing?” Ardent passed Miro her book and took the box. “Let me know if you find anything insightful, sugar.” She strolled to the couch-ring that girded the wall and flopped on her stomach to leaf through the box’s contents. Miro took one of the chairs and skimmed.

§


Half an hour or so later, they had a score of books, boxes, and even two scroll cases littered around them. Ardent looked up from her current book. “Miro, sugar, you wouldn’t lie to me about enjoying channeling just to make me feel better about doing it to you?”

Miro wrestled unsuccessfully with a smile and looked to her. “No, I would not. I will admit, had it been unpleasant, I would have done my best to conceal that fact from you, because it would in no way change what needed to be done. But I would not invent taking pleasure in it. For one, it would not have occurred to me, and for another, I would not be able to make such a lie convincing. My – what was the phrase? – pretty Sun Host courtesies only extend so far.”

She wrinkled her nose at the pages before her. “It’s just – this guy hated it. A lot. A lot a lot. It’s weird your experience is so different.”    

“What account is that?”

“It’s from, um, the year 630ish? By Red Griffon. He was the only survivor of the Sun Etherium channeling experiments on their Moon Host prisoners, during the war for freedom.”

“If I may make a suggestion, my lady? You’re looking for someone who knows how to channel well. War criminal reprobates from six centuries ago would be the exact opposite,” Miro said, and she laughed. “I suppose you might learn what not to do from them.”

“Fair enough.” Ardent set the book to one side.

There were few first-hand accounts of channeling between fey members of opposite hosts. Channeling within the same host was fairly common. It was an easy way of getting a modest aether boost. Fey used it to infuse aether into a spell faster than one could draw it in from the air, or when one needed to cast more spells in the Broken Lands than one could personally store aether for. Host-to-barbarian channeling was much less common, but still well-documented. But since the Sundering, some four hundred and fifty-odd years ago, it was rare that Sun fey were willing to come to the Moon Etherium, or vice versa, without renouncing their affiliation first. Trust between the Etheriums had never recovered. Such cases as might have happened weren’t documented. The Sundering was the last known time that a member of the High Court of either Etherium had even visited the other Etherium.

Miro did find a detailed account of the channeling practices in use prior to the Sundering, written shortly before that disaster took place and full of unwarranted optimism. “Oh, now, this is counterintuitive.”    

“Mm? Wazzat?”

“So everyone says if you increase bodily contact, you can increase the speed of aether transferance.”

“Yes. ‘Too slow’ is not exactly the problem here.”

“True. But Venodeveve writes that it also increases control. You get a better understanding of the state of your channel, how much you’re drawing, what the impact is, and so forth. You can draw faster, but you can also draw slower. She has a whole set of techniques regarding it.”

“Oh! Lemme see?” She caught the book in a current of aether and floated it to her outstretched hand. Ardent read the section while Miro picked up a new volume. “Huh. Well, that’s not going to make things even more awkward at all.”

Miro gave her a chagrinned smile. “My apologies, my lady.”

She waved it off. “Not your fault.”

They continued to skim for a little while after that, but found nothing else promising. Finally, Ardent closed the last volume and sat up, stretching. “All right, looks like Venodeveve’s method it is. Let’s go home. I don’t want to keep you up all night with this.”



Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.

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