They ported in at the top of a fountain of aether currents made quasi-solid: sparkling white, flashing, rising, and falling around them. The sensation reminded Miro of being borne up by thermals when he was shifted into an avian shape.
Except that he had neither wings nor tail with which to balance, now.
He would have lost his balance had Ardent not steadied them both with a spell. Arm in arm, they descended a path of aether, while all eyes turned to them.
Miro wore a tunic with a laced V-front and tights, under a long open jacket, almost a robe, that flowed behind him as he walked. It was patterned in gold, light blue, and white, in a way that suggested sunlight breaking through clouds. Out of several possible trim options, Katsura had chosen a ruff of frothy white lace for lapels and cuffs. He wore no jewelry other than the collar and chain.
Tall and strong beside him, Ardent was the eclipse to his sun: dressed in the colors of sunset, reds and oranges and a midnight field that sparkled with diamonds. Her shoulders and back were bare, to showcase her musculature, powerful and broad beneath deep brown skin. The sunset-reds flowed around her neck as a scarf, then plunged to frame her extremely ample cleavage, and continued down the sparkling midnight skirt to swirl about her hooves. An assortment of white gold jewelry studded with diamonds complemented her attire.
It did not detract from her grandeur.
The party was on the translucent three-masted ship that hung unsupported a half-mile above the Moon Etherium. Streamers of aether and silk adorned its spars in lieu of sails. The aether fountain rose from the rear of the ship, its path leading to the glass deck below. A crisp, salty tang in the air added to the shipboard ambience. Starlight sculptures that were untroubled with considerations like anchor points decorated the scene. The sun was setting beyond the mountains, the sky darkening overhead. They were early, but a few dozen guests had already arrived. The other attendees had the wildly diverse selection of bodies and types that Miro had come to associate with the Moon Etherium. Even those who had human-like shapes varied in build, some impossibly slim, others rounded and pudgy, with heights ranging from the dwarfish to the giant. Many of them had obligations to Ardent, Miro noted: slim bright strings she held unconsciously upon them.
A small group of fey congregated on Ardent as she reached the base of the aether fountain. They included a tall cut-diamond neuter fey, whom Miro recognized from court. It welcomed Ardent graciously to the party, and congratulated her on her new acquisition. As Ardent blandly accepted its well-wishes and those of the others with it, a figure drifting towards them caught Miro’s eye. He turned his head to watch a slender female form approach on butterfly wings. She had deep brown skin, delicate features, and curly hair of a dark, vibrant blue. Her eyes were huge and round, with gold irises and long blue lashes. She was tiny, no more than five feet tall, with a waist so narrow Miro imagined he could encompass it with his current stylishly long-fingered hands. Her wings, patterned in translucent blues, twitched to keep her aloft and her head a bit lower than Miro’s. She wore a neck-to-ankle glittering bodysuit covered by a kind of dress made from varying shades of blue and silver ribbons.
The new fey paused a couple of yards away. Her soul was a pretty, delicate thing, like she was, but it was bowed by the weight of some terrible obligation, and marred by dark scars where she had caved to her fears. She saw him looking and lifted one dark hand in a shy wave. Miro offered a gentle smile and a little wave in answer.
Ardent glanced over his head at the motion, and went still beside him. “Well. Hello, Rain,” she said, softly.
Miro turned to the satyress. Her expression was complicated: a smile on her lips, a question in black eyes flecked with the red-gold of channeled aether, wonder and uncertainty combined.
“Hello, Ardent.” The butterfly-winged stranger gave a tentative smile in return. “It’s good to see you.”
“You came. I didn’t think you’d be here.”
Rain lifted her shoulders. “Why wouldn’t I come to welcome my old friend back?”
“I’ve been back before, and you never came then,” Ardent said, her voice soft.
A half-smile made a dimple on one side of Rain’s delicate face. “It was always too hard to say hello when I knew I’d have to say goodbye again, so soon. But you’re not leaving soon now, are you? You re-affiliated. I didn’t think you ever would.” Her large eyes turned to Miro. “And I never thought you would…like this.”
“…yeah. Excuse me,” Ardent said belatedly to the other fey with her. Ardent half-circled around Miro to stand before Rain. “Forgive my manners: Rain, this is my servant, Prince Mirohirokon of the Sun Host. Miro, this is Whispers Rain, my former wife.”
Rain offered her hand. Miro accepted it and bowed with a Sun Court flourish. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance, my lady.”
“The prince-servant. There must be a remarkable story behind that.” Rain fluttered backwards on faceted wings as she withdrew a couple of feet again. She looked at the chain linking his collar to Ardent’s wrist.
Ardent waved a hand in dismissal. “Surely it’s all over the city by now. We gave it to the Court.”
Rain’s deep blue lips twitched with a suppressed smile. “And surely there was not…time…for all the details.”
“Maybe not.” Ardent took a step closer and reached for Rain’s hands. “Let me look at you.” The smaller fey let her take them. Even hovering, Rain looked like a doll next to Ardent. Their souls leaned towards one another. They might be former wives, but each still held a string upon the other, of obligations left unsettled. On Ardent’s side, both given and received were clear; on Rain’s side, the cords twisted. Miro couldn’t fault her for that; it was still far less problematic than the knotted cords that bound him and his father together. Ardent gazed down at her former lover. “You changed your hair. And your wings.”
Rain ducked her head in a nod, and kept her chin down as she watched Ardent through her lashes. “Do you like it?”
“I love it. Love, it’s good to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you too.” Rain gave a little laugh. “It doesn’t feel real. Are you even bigger now?” She slipped her hands from Ardent’s and fluttered higher to spread them the width of the satyress’s shoulders.
“Maybe? I didn’t reset my body when I came back. You can gain weight, living in the Broken Lands, did you know? Or lose it, if you don’t eat enough. And I do get a lot of exercise. Also, I cheated when I made this body; it’s a lot better at building muscle than my base shape is. But these—” Ardent put her hands under her breasts playfully and jiggled them. Miro found the motion hypnotic. “I am sure they got bigger, and I don’t remember doing that. Intentionally.”
Rain laughed again, and fluttered close to wrap her arms about Ardent’s neck in an embrace. The satyress closed her eyes and held her in return, one large arm wrapped about Rain’s shoulders, above the wings, and the other encompassed her hips, below them. She exhaled, her face looking more at peace than Miro had yet seen her. He simultaneously regretted the leash, that he couldn’t withdraw to give them privacy, and was grateful for it. He didn’t want to face this gathering alone. And it was nice to see Ardent so happy. “You feel real,” Rain murmured, one little hand stroking the curving braids of Ardent’s piled hair. “I wanted to ask ‘are you sure you’re not an impostor?’ but only the real Ardent would make a comment like that.”
“You should verify me,” Ardent told her, and laughed when Rain cast a spell to do so.
More of the guests had come over to say hello. They accepted with good-humored grace her and Rain’s preoccupation with one another, but eventually Ardent shifted her friend to one arm to greet the others. Ardent made a point of introducing them to Miro. For his part, he tried to keep track of a growing swarm of names. Recognizing souls gave him a distinct advantage here, because while everyone had a distinctive appearance, it was often not the same appearance as the last time he’d seen them. Play Until Collapsing Dreams was here with Contemplation After the Storm, and they still looked mostly the same: feline ears and fluffy tails, Play’s with dark points and beige skin, Storm’s golden-brown and brown-skinned. But they’d switched genders: Play was now male and Storm female. Some of the souls stood out: Grain of the Lyre, whose form was as fluid and translucent as water, had an exceptionally trustworthy soul, even moreso than Play and Storm. Wind Sought, Ardent’s friend from the Promenade, had changed from a glass man to a winged, air-swimming mermaid. Wind Sought’s soul was streaked with unreliability and caprice, but overall kind: more whimsical than cruel.
From the conversation amongst the others, Miro gathered that the party would not formally begin until the Queen’s arrival, when things would, apparently, ‘get interesting’.
He was in no great rush to find out what that meant.
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