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Ardent spent an hour constructing protections over Miro, to defend him from not only physical harm, but also from sense-deception and the other mental delusions that glamour could wreak. The latter two she could have done without wards, but it was easier with them. “I wish I could consult with Play on how to make these more resilient in the face of that aether-siphoning enchantment. I am worried about that girl.”

“Play Until Collapsing Dreams? What’s the matter with her?”

“Oh, right, I didn’t tell you.” Ardent explained the final, confusing message she’d gotten from the catgirl. “I tried sending her a message, and she’s blocking me. With an automatic, ‘I said leave me alone, Ardent!’ reply. Maybe I should respect that, but…”

“No, I do not think you should. She sounds like she’s in trouble.”    

“Yeah, she does. Question is, is it the kind of trouble I can fix, or the kind I’ll only make worse by trying? cause Play sure seems to think the latter.”

“Or someone is impersonating and intercepting her messages. She did say that could happen.”

Ardent hesitated. “Yeah, but…to Play? She’s gotta be one of the top ten worst people in the Etherium to try impersonating.” She crinkled her nose. “Still. I think we’d better check on her. At least stop by her castle. Maybe in disguise, in case there’s any casual watchers.”

Standing next to him as Miro sat on the bench, Ardent finally finished with the last protection. “I wish I could give you back fey evasion, but I’m pretty sure there’s no possession-applicable version of that.”

“It will be well, my lady. Thank you.” Miro stood on the bench and hugged her fiercely. “I wish I could make this easier for you,” he murmured in her ear. “You don’t know how much your goodwill means to me.”

“Yeah, well, given your penchant for crazy oaths, I’m starting to get an idea. Let’s go be sneaky.” Ardent shifted both herself and Miro into the shapes of sparrows, and ported them into the sky over Play’s castle.

One glance, and she knew everything was worse than she’d feared. The glamour that made the castle look as if it were the only one for miles was tattered and rent, adjacent buildings visible through the rips. The privacy glamour that should have shielded the castle from prying eyes was likewise battered. The spell that expanded the property’s available space was a wreck. Space itself was left mangled, warping inwards in a wedge that cut through the crippled hedge maze that represented Play’s ward, and into one side of the castle.

“Divine shield us all.” Miro circled over the castle at her side, sparrow-wings spread. “This wasn’t just an intrusion.”

“Justice, no.” Ardent angled over the ruined wards and slipped into the castle through one of the many gaps the wedge of mangled space had left. “Oh no.” She circled in the air of Play’s spacious entrance hall. “Oh no.”

Thousands of fragments of aether, sharp as broken glass, covered the floor. Amidst the wreckage, half-shrouded by debris, rose the feet of Contemplation After the Storm’s aether sculpture. Just the feet and parts of an ankle, and a single intact chunk of skirt. It was horribly still now, the dancing couple and their shared world alike in ruins.

Miro followed her inside, and almost fell from the air with the shock of it. “How – how could she do this? How could anyone do this? Why would she do this? What did Storm ever do to deserve this?”

“Ardent Sojourner.” Play stood at the top of the stairs. She was utterly white: hair, skin, clothing, everything bleached of all color, white as bone, as death. She looked directly at Ardent’s sparrow-form. “I told you. You are not welcome here. Leave.”

Ardent swooped to her and landed on the bannister rail before her. Several scrying spells hung in the air; some of them were Play’s, but one had an unfamiliar aether signature. Ardent made note of it. “Play, sugar, what happened here? You can’t think I had anything to do with it. I haven’t even been in the Etherium since you saw me leave last night!”

The catgirl gave a hoarse croak of a laugh. “You’re not that stupid. You know what happened here. And why. I told you already: get out.”    

Ardent hopped backwards on tiny bird feet, head craned up to look at Play. “Sugar, we gotta stop her. We can’t just—”

“Do you think I didn’t try to stop her?!” Play roared. “Do you think I let this happen? Do you think there’s a place in the Moon Etherium that’s better defended? You are not this stupid! Get out!”

Ardent felt cold. They were being watched, and Play knew they were being watched. She needed to get Play away from the scrying spell to have a real conversation, but she couldn’t convince Play to leave without having a real conversation first. “It’s not too late…”

“Yes it is! Look around you, you Truth-lost fool! You are not in time! It is too late!”

Ardent shifted out of the sparrow form into her normal one, and took the queen’s token from her locket. “Look.” She pressed it into Play’s hand. The reveal-spellwork nudged at her awareness, and Ardent realized a tracer was tracking her movements now, too.

Play stared at Skein’s message with white, pupilless eyes. “No,” she said hoarsely, and threw it back in Ardent’s face. “No! I can’t help you any more than I already have, and I’m sorry for everything I did do! Go back to Try Again! Leave us in peace! This is still my home and I am telling you GET OUT!” Aether swirled around her arm and she hurled it at Ardent and Miro. Ardent evaded it, and found herself outside of the ruined hedge maze, blinking.

A moment later, Miro’s sparrow-shape landed next to her. He looked dazed but unharmed. “That was forceful.”

“Guess her ownership sigils for her home still work. They just…weren’t enough.” Ardent swallowed. “New plan time,” she said, and ported them away.

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As they walked back to the entrance hall, Ardent tried to puzzle out all the implications of that audience, and determine the true nature of Skein’s game. A tiny part of her whined, This is why I left the Moon Etherium! To get away from all these twisty contradictory motivations!    

She squared her shoulders and quashed it. When they reached the entrance hall, she still hadn’t sorted her own thoughts. “Ugh. I need some time to think.” Ardent rubbed her face with one hand. “And somewhere to think. You all right with going to a shrine?”

“I would be glad to,” Miro said.

Ardent sent messages to the golem attendants of a few different shrines, and selected the one that told her there were no visitors at the moment. She teleported them to it as soon as she and Miro reached the foyer of the Midnight Palace.

It was the Moon Etherium’s oldest shrine, and though it was the least impressive of them it was far grander and larger than the shrine at Try Again. It had a traditional Moon-Etherium look: rows of silver benches on a star-dusted midnight floor. The ceiling and walls had cartouches to represent the different major Ideals: Persistence, Duty, Truth, Justice, Loyalty, and Love. Between each, stained-glass scenes illustrated the major and minor Ideals. Each was exquisitely rendered, and from a time when mastery of aether was still primitive and such things required much more manual skill and labor. A rich mix of different incenses scented the air, the residue of many offerings.

The only attendant was the golem, which surprised Ardent. When she’d last lived in the Etherium, there’d always been a volunteer confidant at this shrine, to talk to anyone who came by if they needed advice. Now the golem said there were only confidants on schedule for a few hours a day. In case it wasn’t obvious enough that the Moon Host doesn’t care about the Ideals any more.

The shrine had several altars, so that multiple people could engage in private meditations at once. Since none were in use, Ardent went to the front one. She lengthened the leash for Miro to several yards, but did not unchain him. The Moon Etherium’s oldest shrine was a sacred place and should be safe, but she didn’t trust it. While she was being paranoid anyway, Ardent cast reveal-spellwork, and looked for signs of any watchers. There weren’t any. Either Fallen doesn’t think I’m a threat, or she doesn’t want me to think that she thinks I’m a threat. Ugh, my head hurts already.

Miro could have chosen another altar, but he took one of the seats instead and bowed his head.

Ardent set out the Ideals before her, though Truth knew it was there more as apology than observance. She knelt before the altar and lit a candle for Love first. Do I ask for your help? Apologize for the way I’ve abused you too? Tell you I don’t have time for you now, please come back later?

Love’s carved eyes watched her with a kindly, accepting expression. Ardent imagined her words: You’ve been telling me to wait for twelve years. How’s that been going for you?

I don’t love him, Ardent answered herself, and wasn’t sure she believed it. Pretty sure I’m still in love with Whispers Rain.

Do you still think the one is exclusive of the other?

Ardent sighed. Right, I’m not settling this one today, either. She lit a candle for Truth next.

Part of her wanted to tell Miro everything that had happened with Skein, but she couldn’t. Not because she didn’t trust him, but because it wasn’t her secret to share. And she didn’t know exactly what it meant.

I can’t tell a Sun Host fey that the Queen of the Moon Host has lost control of her own Etherium. I can’t tell him that Fallen may’ve tricked Skein, perhaps into thinking that when Fallen tore apart the Sun Etherium and built her own, Fallen’s new one would be subordinate to Moon. Or maybe Skein is just so scared of Fallen that she doesn’t dare oppose her. But I know now they’ve been discrediting the Sun Etherium to make what Fallen will do to it palatable. Forgivable. Acceptable. And maybe Skein’s just now figuring out how untrustworthy Fallen is, or maybe I’m just the only person she thinks might have a shot at stopping her. Hah. Maybe there’re other agents she’s putting into motion, but she wants to keep them all deniable so that Fallen won’t take it out on Skein if we lose. Skein’s hedging her bets: pretend to be on Fallen’s side so that Fallen won’t make her a target, and covertly oppose her in the hopes someone else can stop her. Clever enough. Cowardly. But clever.    

The satyress looked to Justice. Maybe it’s not justice to rescue Skein from her own terrible decisions, if that’s what’s happening. But it’s sure not justice to let Fallen succeed. Ardent lit a candle for Justice and stopped trying to solve her problems by conscious thought. She meditated on the Ideals instead, contemplating each one with familiar abstract litanies, centering herself upon them.

When she’d finished meditating, or at least decided more meditation wasn’t doing her any good, Ardent rose and walked back to Miro. He lifted his head and started to rise at the jingle of the leash, until she waved him to sit again. She sat on the bench beside him instead. The section resized itself and the space around it to accommodate her, without displacing Miro. She asked him, “How’re the Ideals observed in the Sun Etherium?”

“Much the same as here, I believe,” Miro said.

“So, badly?”

He smiled. “Perhaps.”

“Sorry. I don’t mean to slight you, hon. Or Sun Host. Just kinda curious, since you look like you’re meditating but not to an Ideal. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Everyone’s got their own way, doesn’t need to be same as mine.”

“Praying,” Miro said, quietly.

Ardent blinked at that. “What?”

“I wasn’t meditating. I was praying.”

“Uh…you mean like mortals to their gods?”

“Exactly like that, yes.”

“Huh. I didn’t know the Sun Etherium had gods any more. I mean, I know there’s some barbarian villages where fey have religions, but I thought both Etheriums were pretty secular now.”

“Sun Etherium is, yes, but there are still a few religious fey left. I practice Vya Aymthial, the Divine Way. It’s a mortal religion, from the world of Thial.”

“When were we last on Thial? I don’t even remember that one.”    

“Thirty-two years ago. We were synchronized with it for several months. My father and I travelled it for two months, gathering stories, books, and research materials. We ran into a Vya Aymthial missionary, and she converted me.”

Ardent smiled. “That must have been one persuasive mortal. Not like the lure of eternal life’s much of a promise to a fey.”

“Well. It was a persuasive religion.” Miro hesitated, then said, “The missionary had soulsight. Just like me. She said that Vya Aymthial’s first prophet also had soulsight. That the Divine had given it to him to help show other people the Path. Vya Aymthial has a tripart god: the Divine, the Guide, and the Path. The Divine is the power behind all things, the creator and the universe. The Guide is the force that shows the difference between right and wrong, the one that helps you know what to do. And the Path is the way you’re supposed to go, to accomplish the goals of your life.” He gave a little shrug, as if he’d said more than he’d intended to. “Anyway, their holy book taught me a lot about soulsight and the meaning of what I can see. And their message, that people should love one another and do what will create the most good in the world, resonated with me.”

Ardent nodded. “That’s what you meant when you were talking to Sessile. About your purpose.”

He blushed, his long ears pinkening. “Yes. And also…that the Path isn’t the same for everyone. Sometimes there’ll be things that need to be done that aren’t the right task for me, because of my skills and limitations. Sometimes they are. I just have to try to figure out what’s what.”

The satyress reached out to take his hand. “And saving your dad is your Path?”

“I think so. Part of it.” Miro laced his fingers between hers. “Yours too, I hope. Not that I expect you to believe in the Divine Way.”

“Yeah. Mine too.” Ardent offered him a smile.

Miro smiled back for a moment, then his expression sobered. “What did the Queen want, my lady? If I may ask?”

“It was complicated. But I got this.” She took the carte blanche from her locket and showed it to him.

Miro stared as it activated. “That’s genuine? It has her aether signature?”

“From the queen’s hand to mine.”

“But – how did you convince her to offer it? What did you give her?”

“An oath. Don’t worry, sugar, it was nothing I wasn’t already doing, and nothing as ridiculous as the one you swore to me during High Court.” Ardent put the token back in her locket. Miro still had the same worried look anyway. She twisted to face him, curling one leg atop the bench, and held out her arms in invitation. He entered her embrace with a gratifying eagerness and snuggled into her lap. She stroked his long indigo hair. At least this still makes sense. Wait, no, this never made sense. Nothing in my life makes sense any more, least of all this. But it does feel right. Which is more than I can say for anything else.

Ardent blew out a breath. First things first. She glanced around the empty shrine. Guess this is as good a place as any to try this. Not like my apartment’s safe any more. Maybe a shrine’ll be auspicious. “I’m gonna try to ward you now, sugar, all right?”

He chuckled. “Oh, no, don’t protect me, my lady. I am so looking forward to the next abduction attempt.” He grinned. “I mean, it did end very nicely for me.”

Ardent made a face at him. “Hush, you.” She kissed his nose, and then made the basic gestures for ownership and warding over him. Even before she was through, she knew it wasn’t working. She tried feeding what Sun aether she still had left into the spell, but it was as if the spell couldn’t even start. The magic wouldn’t go into it. She might as well have tried to soak up water with a rock instead of a sponge.    

“No luck?” Miro asked, watching her face.

“No. Not even with Sun aether. Aether knows you’re a fey, and you shouldn’t need this kind of protection anyway.” She compressed her full lips into a thin, unhappy line.

He made a thoughtful noise and withdrew from her arms. “Or perhaps aether knows I am not a possession.” Miro rose to his feet, then knelt at her hooves and said, “I give myself to you, Ardent Sojourner, in all ways and all things, to use as you see fit.”

“What – Miro, what are you doing, you can’t—” Ardent bolted upright, staring at him in horror as he repeated that insanity two more times. “I don’t want to own you!”

Miro flinched at her words; he looked pale and shaken, head down, still kneeling. “I know. Please don’t release me from it yet, my lady. If my lady would be so kind as to try the warding spell again?”

I don’t want this to work. She almost released him anyway. Instead, she leaned forward, breathing shallowly, and made the warding gesture again. Before she was partway through, she knew it was going to work, and hated it, and hated the Moon Etherium, and the Sun Etherium, and aether, and the entire justice-lost fey race.

“My lady?” Miro had turned his face up to watch her, his expression worried. “It didn’t work?”

Ardent realized she was crying. She wiped her eyes with the back of one brown hand. “No. It did.” I don’t want this. It’s too much. “Miro.” There has to be a way, some way to make it more bearable. She chose her next words carefully. “This is my command to you. You are to behave exactly as you would had you never given me this pledge. You will act in accordance with your own best judgment. You will give no more weight to anything I ask of you than you would have without that oath. Nothing I or anyone else says in the future can or will change this command. Do you understand?”

Miro relaxed visibly, and rose to his feet. “I do, my lady. Ardent. Thank you.”

“All right.” She let out a breath. The ward was still intact upon him. “C’mere, let me do a better version of the ward.”

He sat beside her obediently. “Yes, my lady.”

Too obediently. She started to gesture, stopped. “Back up, sugar.”

He did so. “My lady.”

“Stand on your head,” she told him, and he moved to comply. He didn’t even look confused. “No, stop, Miro, what are you doing?”

He stopped, frozen with one hand on the floor. “…obeying.” With a visible effort, he pulled himself together and sat, carefully, on the bench. “I don’t think contradicting your own future orders quite worked.”    

“Justice find it!” she swore. “I can’t do this. I’m going to release you.”

“Please don’t,” Miro said. He put a hand over hers. “It’s not as bad as that. See, I can even argue with you. Give me another silly command.”

“Turn a pirouette.”

Miro remained seated. “See? I don’t have to obey—”

“Do it now!” Ardent snapped.

Miro twisted sideways to face her on the bench, and clenched a hand against its back. He turned no further, meeting her eyes. “All right, yes, it feels wrong to disobey. But I am not forced to. It’ll be fine, Ardent. It doesn’t have to change anything. And we both know you are putting up with this for my benefit, not yours.” He touched her damp cheek, his index finger caressing beside the corner of her eye. “Everything you have done in the Etherium for the last three days has been for my benefit, and my father’s. I am the one taking advantage of you, Ardent.” He gave a little self-conscious laugh and looked at his hands. “Did I unintentionally put you deeper into my power by trying to put myself into yours? I am sorry, Ardent. Of course you should release me if you wish.”

Ardent smiled weakly, covering his delicate hand with her own larger one. She lowered her eyes and took a deep breath. “Is crazy contagious? Because you’re starting to make sense to me and now I’m really worried.” He laughed. “Fine, when you put it like that it doesn’t seem quite so awful. But Justice, Miro, I will be glad when this is all over. I’m going to finish warding you now.” And be very careful in how I phrase things, from here on.

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Skein’s private quarters were much less ostentatious than the Great Hall where she held court. The rooms were spacious but not vast, at least not by Etherium standards. Skein received them in a parlor large enough to accommodate a dragon of modest proportions. It was an old-fashioned chamber, with a mosaic floor and stuccoed walls. Large, arched windows and a balcony door looked out upon the Palace gardens, letting in fresh air and a subtle, pleasant mix of floral and earthy scents. Except for the furniture, the room was natural: unenhanced by shifting, expansion, or glamour. The furniture was the one modern touch visible: faintly glowing oblongs that floated in the air. Sophisticated use of aether meant that they supported the occupant in whatever position the individual chose. Skein was reclining on her side in hers, suspended at a thirty degree angle with the seat conforming to her. She wore her usual star-skinned, white-haired form, though today her hair was a mass of tight curls in a vaguely spherical shape, off-center from the top of her head as it drooped down against her rack of antlers. Curls strayed against her face. A simple silver toga, ankle-length and trimmed with ornamented ribbon, served as her only garb.

“My queen.” Ardent knelt to her, as did Miro.

“Ardent, beloved. Rise. Thank you for joining me. Your servant may wait without.” She made a shooing motion with the back of one black hand.

“If your majesty does not object, I prefer him where I can keep an eye on him.” Ardent caught the chain leading from her bracelet in her hand and jingled it meaningfully.

Skein raised a white eyebrow. “I am sure one of my people may be spared to watch him for you, if he’s proved troublesome.”

“He’s proved trouble-attracting, your majesty. He was assaulted, injured, and almost stolen from me last night. If you don’t want him to overhear us, then put him in some immersion. He has no more defense against them than a mortal; he’ll be unaware of everything without. But I want him with me.” Ardent tensed her fingers around the chain, then made herself relax her grip. Don’t press me on this, Skein, or neither one of us will be happy with the result.

Skein studied her for a moment. “Very well.” She dispatched a message with a flick of one hand. “There’s no need for formal attire today, Ardent. Diamond of Winter should have said. Feel free to change to something more comfortable.”

Being more formally dressed than her queen definitely wasn’t comfortable. Ardent bowed and exchanged her formal dress for the kind of thigh-length chiton she usually wore. She gave Miro a similar short toga.

“I am sorry to hear that your servant was attacked, Ardent. Have you identified the responsible party? Has the Justiciar been informed?”

“After the attack last night, I had to take Mirohirokon out of the city at once to heal his injuries. We only returned a few minutes before this appointment. I will look into the matter, of course, but I haven’t visited the Justiciar yet.”

A regal tilt of Skein’s head acknowledged this point. She gestured to the drifting oblong seat nearest herself. “Please, make yourself at home. Would you care for a refreshment? Have you yet a fondness for aether brandies, my Ardent? The Palace vintner composed a truly magnificent blend twelve years ago, of which we’ve only uncasked one barrel so far. If you would care to taste?”

“Your majesty knows me well. Thank you; I’d be delighted.” Ardent took the offered seat; Miro rose enough to follow her, then sank to his knees at her hooves. Just as Jinokimijin had done with Fallen. Ardent struggled to ignore the similarity. Invisible aether servants uncorked a decanter and filled a snifter for her, which floated to her hand. Ardent sipped it, and was startled into a direct exclamation. “Fantastic! You didn’t exaggerate on this one, Skein.”

Skein grinned at her, and for a moment it was as if they were both just people again. Blight, she’s got a whole court full of fey to treat her like a queen. If she wanted someone to treat her like royalty, she’d’ve summoned one of them and not me. Ardent was about to ask a question when a white centaur entered the chamber and knelt to the queen.    

“Reflections on Water. Would you kindly provide an immersion for Ardent’s servant? Did you have a preference for type, Ardent?” Skein asked.

Why don’t you just ask him? Would it kill us to acknowledge he’s a person? Screw this, I don’t care what she wants me to pretend. Deciding for him that he’s gonna be mind-fogged again is enough high-handedness for me. “Sugar, what kind of immersions do you like?” Ardent asked.

“If it pleases my lady, a racing or flying immersion would be enjoyable.” Miro kept his head bowed, his tone subservient.

Reflections glanced to Skein for confirmation, received a slight nod, and cast the immersion. Miro’s posture relaxed, eyes unfocusing as the sophisticated glamour filled his senses and took control of his mind. Skein waved the kneeling centaur away with her thanks, and he withdrew.

Once he was gone, Ardent asked, “How’ve you been, Skein? You look fantastic, but you always have. Do you do your hair like that a lot now?”

“For informal occasions, so far. It’s a little…messy, for Court.”

Ardent grinned. “Since when is the Court anything but messy? C’mon, our aesthetic’s never been about brutal perfection.”

“Brutal perfection!” Skein gave a real smile for that. “Oh, I like that one. It fits the Sun Etherium. There is something brutal about perfection, isn’t there? Regimentation is oppressive.”

“Yeah. So how’ve you been, sweetie? Because you seemed kinda regimented, y’know?”

The queen shifted to rest her cheek against one hand, her body-conforming seat reshaping itself to reflect her position. “Perhaps I am,” she admitted. “I don’t suppose you want your old job back?”

“Not really. Something wrong with your current Justiciar? Who is it, Captivate Interpretation?”

“No, they resigned two years ago. The Justiciar is Endless Steel, now.”

“Endless Steel? Isn’t it kinda…young for the job?”

“Yes. And I do not trust it,” Skein said, bluntly.

“Then why’d you appoint it?”

“It was Captivate Interpretation’s recommendation. And Shadow of Fallen Scent supported it.”

“Well, there’s your first sign that it was a mistake,” Ardent said. “Why is Shadow of Fallen Scent your Surety now? What happened to Leaping Stallion?”

Skein thinned her lips and narrowed her eyes. “Surely even you know what Leaping Stallion did, and if you don’t, you can find someone else to tell you. As for why Shadow of Fallen Scent…she is qualified for the position, as well as ambitious and…persistent.”

“Where by ‘qualified’ you mean ‘she bullied the right people’ and by ‘ambitious’, power-mad?”

The queen sighed and rubbed her temples. “Perhaps. She is a force to be reckoned with in the Moon Etherium, now more than ever.”

“Because you promoted her! Seriously, Skein, what were you thinking? You can’t appease a power-mad tyrant by giving her more power!”  

“You haven’t been here!” Skein shot back. “You’ve been off, playing your little game in your little barbarian village, and left this mess to us!”

“Playing my little game? You think what I do is a game? Nothing that happens in the Etheriums is real! You eat fake food and live in fake houses and sit on fake cushions and make up fake problems for each other so that you can whine about how awful it all is! We’re all immortal and invulnerable and uncontainable, and the Etherium dwellers have all the aether anyone could want to make anything they could need and somehow – somehow – the only thing anyone here really wants is to find a way to make other fey suffer. Can’t hurt em physically? Let’s stab each other socially. You want to talk about games? Let’s talk about that game. Let’s talk about the game where you want Fallen to display some poor dumb Sun Host fey like a Justice-deprived bed slave in High Court. High Court, Skein. Is Humiliation the new Ideal you’re gonna put alongside Justice, Love, Persistence, Truth, Duty and Loyalty? Are you putting it up beside Vanity and Social Standing? Did you just throw Truth and Justice away entirely?” Ardent was on her hooves without realizing at what point she’d stood, her chest heaving.    

The Queen of the Moon Host rose from her oblong and crossed the few paces between them, her height increasing with each stride. She stopped a bare inch from Ardent, tall enough now to look the satyress in the eye, the points on the forward side of her antlers almost touching Ardent’s little horns. Her expression was blank and calm, though her breathing had quickened. One star-dappled-hand reached for the chain that dangled from Ardent’s wrist, and lifted it. It jingled. She brought it higher, until it drew taut against Miro’s collar and pulled the Sun prince’s head upright with it, collar tight beneath his chin, eyes dreamlost, body limp and unaware. Skein stopped, holding him there. “And what game are you playing, Ardent Sojourner, that gives you the right to come lecture me about mine?”

…Well, everything I just said was a terrible tactical mistake. Ardent felt her face heat with embarrassment. She started to fall back, to kneel and start over.

Skein caught Ardent’s chin in her free hand instead, and the satyress did not evade. “You are about to call me your majesty and tell me some new evasion you think I want to hear. You are going to apologize for your heated words and say you did not mean them. Don’t. You meant what you just said. You have always been Loyal to Truth, Ardent. Don’t betray him now. Why did you say that to me?”

Because I’m an idiot. “Because you’re better than this, Skein. Truth knows, I’ve told you before that the Moon Etherium is full of petty dramas, as if torturing each other over nothing will make up for the fact that we’ve eliminated all the real ways we could suffer. But this, what Fallen’s doing to Jinokimijin, it’s not just petty. What happened to Mirohirokon – he could have died, sugar. And I can’t believe this is what you want. I know you. You are better than this.”

Skein lifted the chain an inch higher, pulling Miro’s upper body from his resting place against his heels. Ardent winced. “And what of you, Ardent? Did you stop being better than this? Tell me what your game is.”

“I’m trying to help him save his parent. The Sun Queen can’t just leave a Sun Etherium High Court channel here, not for long, and he won’t leave without Jinokimijin. So she’ll come up with an offer to entice me and Fallen to let them both go. And since I don’t care about ‘my share’ whatever she comes up with can all go to Fallen. If it doesn’t work, well, Jinokimijin’s no worse off. And as long as no random blightstricken fey cripples him while I’m trying to protect him, neither is Miro.” Ardent met Skein’s eyes as she spoke, the deception as earnest and level as she could make it. Pustulence, it’s true enough as far as it goes. If the Sun Queen makes an offer for them, I’ll gladly boot both of them out of here and take my chances on finding the phoenix rose on my own. At least Miro’d be safe.

The Moon Queen dropped the chain, and Miro slumped to the floor. “And what happened to ‘you can’t appease the power-mad by giving her more power’?”

Blight. “I didn’t realize how bad things were here when we hatched this plan,” Ardent admitted.

“And now that you have?”

“I’m trying to figure out how to screw Fallen out of Jinokimijin and any bargain she’d get for giving the Sun fey up.”

A bitter smile formed on Skein’s dark lips. “Come up with anything yet?”

“Still working on it. I’m pretty sure she’s the one who tried to abduct Miro. Once I can prove that—”

“You can’t take her down with that alone. Even if you can prove it.”

“It’s a wedge. I’ll find other ones. If nothing else, I’m giving her a target to distract her from all her other targets. Skein, are you with Fallen? Are you happy about the level of power she has here? Do you want to see her gain more? Because I don’t think she’s gonna use it to help you, or the Moon Etherium, or anyone except her own narrow interests.”

Skein turned her side to Ardent and walked a few paces, shrinking to her normal size as she did so. “No. No, I don’t think she will, either,” she said quietly. “I can’t stop her, Ardent.”

“What do you mean? You’re the Queen. You can kick her off the Court. You can blighted exile her, for that matter. You hold the Heart of the Etherium!”

But Skein was shaking her head. “You don’t understand. Too much of the Court supports her. It’d take weeks, months, to bypass all her supporters and push through an exile, and in weeks…it’ll be too late.”    

Yes, it will. You know she has the phoenix rose. You’ve always known. Ardent licked dry lips, tried to think. “There has to be something you can do.”

“Yes. I can ask you to stop her.” Skein turned back to Ardent. “You have a Sun High Court channel. Use him. Gather whatever evidence you can against her. But do not go to the Justiciar; you cannot trust it. If you will do this, if you will use all your talents to dismantle Fallen’s power base and not allow her to build upon it further, then I will give you my carte blanche, Ardent. With anyone whom the Queen of the Moon Etherium yet holds sway, that will suffice for their cooperation. Be aware that number is not as high as it once was. And that I cannot be seen as openly in opposition to my own Surety. I will say that I gave you carte blanche because I am appalled by the assault on your servant, and I know you would not abuse it. Do we have an agreement, Ardent Sojourner?”

Ardent regarded her queen for a moment, trying to parse the offer, to process ramifications that were both better and far worse than she had feared. After too long a pause, she fell to one knee and bowed her head. “I am at your service, my queen. I will use all my talents to put an end to Fallen’s influence. I will use all my talents to put an end to Fallen’s influence. I will use all my talents to put an end to Fallen’s influence.”

Skein summoned a crystal marble to her hand and set a spell upon it. “To all Loyal members of the Moon Host: Ardent Sojourner of the Moon Host acts with Our authorization and for the good of the Moon Etherium. Give her your full cooperation and do not impede her in her work. As Holder of the Heart of the Moon Etherium, We are your liege, Queen Skein of the Absolute.” She stepped to the still-kneeling satyress, and pressed the token into Ardent’s palm. “In a fortnight, this will expire. If it still matters then, come to me and I will renew it. Remember: play this with care, my friend. Do not trust anyone; Fallen has holds over everyone. Even your former wife, Whispers Rain.” Ardent’s head jerked up at that, and Skein continued, gently, “I am sorry, Ardent. But give no one more information than you absolutely must. Maintain for as long as you can the ruse that you hope for a trade from the Sun Etherium to rescue Jinokimijin.” She stepped back. “Rise. You may take your servant and leave now.”

Ardent felt shaky on her hooves as she stood. She opened the locket around her neck and tucked the queen’s authorization into it. A gesture over Miro caused the immersion glamour to dissipate. He blinked a few times as his vision cleared, then gazed up at her. “My lady?”

“We’re done here, sugar. C’mon.” She helped him to his feet, then bowed to the queen as they withdrew. “Your majesty.”

“Ardent Sojourner. Justice be with you.”

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Ardent strode from the entrance hall of the Palace of the Moon to Skein’s private quarters, silently snarling at the Queen’s teleport blocks in the Palace. They arrived at almost exactly the scheduled hour. Diamond of Winter awaited them in her antechamber, with a scowl on its crystalline face. Cope with it, glass-guy. You want people to be more prompt, you can let them port to the meeting spot. And we’re not even late. Technically.

The adjunct made them wait for a quarter hour anyway, during which Ardent checked her remaining messages. There was one from Whispers Rain that made her heart melt. Rain thanked her for the lovely evening, and asked after Miro’s health, and whether or not she’d been able to do anything about the intruders. I wonder if sexual jealousy is part of the Sun Etherium nowadays? I think marriage is still important to their High Court. At least it was when the Sun Queen made a big point of divorcing Jinokimijin and tumbling him from the High Court, forty-odd years ago. Whispers Rain had never been the possessive sort: she loved sharing, and was always encouraging Ardent to get into other relationships, whether friendships, casual flings, or romances. That was one of the reasons Rain couldn’t leave the Moon Etherium: too many other people there that she loved.

Ardent had been born in a time when jealousy was still seen as normal in the Moon Etherium. Fey had paired with just one other fey in relationships that were, at least in theory, sexually exclusive. To hear White Rose, who was her senior by at least a century, talk of it, it was a rule more observed in the breach. They contended that multiple relationships were common even then, but rife with lies and hypocrisy. After immortality became available to everyone by the middle of the eleventh century, exclusive, permanent, two-person marriages became increasingly rare. By the twelfth they were no longer held up even as an ideal.

Ardent’s own view of a single enduring marriage was more idealistic, and she’d held onto the desire for one for some decades after they became unfashionable. She’d been given to possessiveness and jealousy then, too. Rain was the one who’d broken her of that habit. Rain, who behaved as if sharing a lover was not merely a hardship to be tolerated but a gift to be treasured. If I’d tried harder, returned to the Etherium more often, could I have made you see Try Again as a lover with whom you shared me?

She had no idea how Miro felt on the subject. Given the state Rain and I were in when he interrupted us last night, he can’t have assumed he’s my only lover at present. I’ll have to ask him about it some time later. When we’re in private.

After shaking her head to clear her thoughts, Ardent opened her next message from Play. It was also from last night. “Thought some more about how to stop your pet from getting stolen. There’s no way to ward a fey, far as I know. But if you keep him on a leash all the time, you can ward the collar and leash, so someone’d have to break or bypass those wards to cut him loose of you. Anti-theft wards aren’t as secure as anti-trespassing, but they’re pretty good. Another option: shift him to something small, so you can carry him close. That’d extend to him some of the benefits of your own evasiveness and invulnerability. Not as much as your clothing gets, but still. About what your bag would get, while you’re carrying it. Anyway, you’ll want to keep him close to you. We still haven’t come up with a vault that’s as good as a fey is for keeping things safe.”

There was one more message from Play after that, this one from the morning. “I can’t do anything else for you,” it said. “Don’t message me. Don’t visit me. Stay away from me. And from Storm, too.” Startled, she read it again, and then a few more times. It was so unexpected that she found herself studying it for signs of a cipher, some hidden message in the blunt, unambiguous text.

Miro touched her arm. “My lady? What’s the matter?”

Ardent shook her head; she didn’t want to talk about it here, where they would be overheard. He didn’t press her on it. She was still pondering the implications when Diamond of Winter finally called her in to attend the Queen.

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After that, Ardent put her chiton back on and woke Sessile. Miro made himself a new outfit in the everyday fashion of Sun Etherium. He offered additional information while Sessile returned them to the Moon Etherium. “Building this sort of extractor isn’t a matter of a few minute’s work with aether. Many of the pieces need to be natural materials, not aether-made. If she already had everything she needed, she wouldn’t need to gather natural ivory or alabaster now. And it takes seasoning to reach the full potential, which requires time and use. That she made that ward-siphoner for her lackey suggests that she’s far enough along to begin the seasoning process, but the construction cannot be complete. We have some time yet. Days, probably.”

“But not weeks,” Ardent said, grimly.

“Not weeks. No.”

She sighed, slumping in her chair. “Mph. Well, it’s not like she’d hunt for this stuff herself. If we could find her supplier before she picked up a package, I could use Play’s scryer on the shipment to see where it went. Though I’m concerned that she knew to check if you were being traced or watched. Suppose it could be coincidence. Those are the most common information-gathering enchantments and I used variants on them often when I was Justiciar.” Ardent rubbed her face with one hand.

“The extractor will be fragile while it’s under construction, especially since she’s started the seasoning. She wouldn’t want to move it, or move the phoenix rose, until it’s done, or she’d have to start all over from the beginning.”

“That’s something, I suppose.”

When they reached the Moon Etherium, Ardent had Sessile port directly to her apartment. Her living room had a hole in the glamour on one wall; underneath it was a new steel wall. She patted Sessile’s nose after they got out, and set Try Again for her destination. “Time for you to go home, little girl,” she told the earthserpent. “Much as I’d like to have Storm fix you up properly, I think you’ll be safer outside of the Etherium for now. You port as far out as you can, all right?”

“Aww. All right.” Sessile nosed at her hand, and departed.

With a sigh, Ardent flopped into the couch-pit and drew the rune to receive messages again. A flurry of messengers in different shapes and sizes poured in on her at once. Ardent massaged her temples and sorted through the pile, taking them one after another. She groused, “I need to make you my secretary.”

“I shall be glad to oblige in whatever role my lady desires of me.” He took a seat on the rim of the sunken couch, resting his hands to either side and dangling his legs beside her.

She wrinkled her nose at him, then grimaced as she read the first will-o-wisp message – the one he’d sent the night before. The messages were only readable by their intended recipient; looking over her shoulder he could see nothing but unintelligible squiggles. She swept the first message into her bag, and moved to the next, grimacing again.

“What’s wrong?”

“Just the messages from you and Play telling me not to be an idiot and stop messages while you’re being attacked.”

Miro leaned down to squeeze her shoulder. “I cannot vouch for Play, but I am confident that was not how I worded mine.”

“It’s how you should have worded it.” She covered his hand with hers and let Play’s first message evaporate, and half-laughed at the next three. “Poor Play. She was getting increasingly annoyed at me for using a fifteen-year-old messenger-block spell. ‘Every current variant of this spell allows for emergency override, under various conditions. Why are you using an antique? And if you’re going to use an antique, why doesn’t it have any of the loopholes every other antique does? I swear it’d be easier to intercept your messages than send you one to say Hi your friend is getting killed. I’m going to try breaking your apartment ward instead, it’ll be less frustrating’.”

“Why doesn’t your antique have the loopholes?” Miro asked her, curiously.

“Because Play told me what they were back when I was a Justiciar, and I tailored my messenger-block to prevent them.” She sighed again. “Never thought I’d regret making life harder for pranksters. Anyway, I’m sure it’s not impenetrable, especially not to Play. Just not quickly penetrated.” Ardent released the message to turn to mist, and looked at the next. “Aha! This is the good one. Play isolated the aether signatures and physical descriptions of each of the intruders.” Ardent conjured a notebook and duplicated the information on the aether signatures. She passed the notebook to Miro and tucked the original message into her bag. “Not that you can do much with it, sugar, unless we go to the trouble of making a verification charm for you, but just in case.” She opened the next message. “Nice! Play also sent me their names, list of commonly-used forms for each, and the history of complaints against them lodged with the justiciary. They’re all young-ish, judging by the names. The minotaur is Broken Song, and usually takes a woman’s form with peacock wings and tail. The wolf is Water’s Remorse, usually a dragon of various types and genders, most often wingless with blue scales and a spinal mane of misty hair. The panther-man is Stalks Hunter, has three different typical forms. Including a black & white merman.” She stopped, still looking at the message.

“What of the complaint history?”

“Oh – um – kinda long for Stalks and Remorse, not much on Song. Stalks is a blighted boil of a fey. I remember him. He used to kidnap and enslave mortals. I freed three. After that, we had him surveilled by golems for years. But Play says he’s not under watch any more. Queen’s orders. Considered ‘reformed’ now.” Ardent clenched her fingers into a fist and snarled. “Right. Play says to come see her today if I want to track them down.” She frowned at the message, then fished one of the earlier ones out again and looked at it. She dropped her hand from Miro’s, her face slowly draining of expression.

“What is it?” Miro folded his hands in his lap, trying to cover a sudden sense of apprehension.

“It’s…Miro, you told me this morning that your assailants looked like a six-armed humanoid panther, a minotaur, and a tentacled wolf. Right?”


“But the message you sent last night said one of them was a merman. A black-and-white merman.”

Oh. Pustulence. “My apologies – I hadn’t gotten a good look at any of them when I sent that. My brief glimpse was wildly off.”

“Yeah. That’d make sense.” She drummed her fingers against the sofa, and spoke her next words slowly, as if they were being dragged out of her. “Except that Stalks Hunter’s usual form is a black-and-white merman.”

“I did catch the first part of his name, when the wolf accidentally spoke it.”

“After you sent this message.” Ardent turned her face up to his, and the look in her black eyes was almost unbearable. Not just suspicion, but fear. Fear of betrayal, fear that he’d been using her. She knows I’m hiding something. “Miro, how did you know what he normally looked like, when you sent this?”

“…perhaps he trueshifted between my first glimpse and when I next saw him properly?”

Ardent shook her head. “No. Play would’ve detected the shift when she did the analysis. Same way she knew what physical appearances matched which aether signature. Miro…” She trailed off, her eyes pleading for the truth.

He looked away, unable to withstand the heartbreak in her expression, the fear of what other lies he might be concealing. The fear that his affection, too, was a deceit. Forty-four years I’ve kept this secret from everyone but my father, and I betrayed it to her after only three days.

But I know I can trust her.

And now she knows she can’t trust me. Miro swallowed hard. “May I entrust you with a secret, my lady?”

Ardent reached up to take his chin in her hand, and turned his face back to hers. “You’ve entrusted me with a whole lot more than that, sugar,” she said, softly, fingers straying to the pulse in his throat. “I’ll keep your secret, long as it’s not about endangering the Etherium or somesuch.”

“No, this is…personal. I knew Stalks Hunter’s everyday form because I can always verify people. Regardless of what they look like. It’s a Gift. I hadn’t even seen the shape he wore during the intrusion yet, I just knew he was the same person as that merman at the party.”    

“A Gift.” Ardent covered her mouth. “From your father’s line. The reason the Sun Queen wanted a child from him. You do have soulsight.”    

Miro took a deep breath, and nodded.

“But why – why keep it a secret? Isn’t that what your mother had been hoping for from you? Or – is she privy to it?”

He curled his lip back. “No. The only person other than you who knows is Jinokimijin. The Gift didn’t come to me until I was nine, and by then my mother had already given up on my having it. My grandfather had been revealed as a fraud. My great-grandfather never returned from the mortal land he’d disappeared to. Half the fey in Sun Etherium do not believe soulsight is real. It was too late to save my father’s marriage. My grandfather’s hoax had already demonstrated that it is all too easy to fake the ability to read the measure of another’s soul. That I can identify fey without error – that I can prove. That I have soulsight? There’s no fey in the shard who can challenge or verify such a claim. If I tried, I’d spend my life contending with accusations of fraud. And…” He had to force himself to finish the sentence. “I do not want to serve the Sun Queen with my Gift. She is not worthy of it.”

Ardent put her hand on his knee; he was still sitting on the rim of the sunken couch, while she sat below him. She rested her chin on her fingers, looking up at him. “Heartless, is she?”

“You do not understand. My lady…I do not like to speak of what I see with soulsight, for the reasons aforementioned. Sometimes even I doubt the accuracy of my own vision. But I will tell you this: Queen Eletanene of the Sun Host has the most corrupt soul of any person I’ve ever seen. And that includes the fey who wanted to rape me last night.”

Ardent stared at him, wide-eyed. “That’s some condemnation. I mean, ‘make your kids compete for who you love best’ is awful, but ‘torturer and rapist’ is a whole different category of vile. What must she have done?”

“She stranded her own father in the mortal world, at the least. Perhaps killed him, or arranged for his death. And that was not the first nor the worst of her crimes.” Miro gazed through the transparent walls to the sunlit day outside of the apartment.

“And that’s your mother.”

“Yes. That is my mother. You perceive why I am uninterested in offering her any tool that might further her ambitions. Even if she believed my Gift were true. Which is far from given.” He shook his head. “Even I am hesitant to rely on it overmuch. It’s too easy to become judgmental. And my own soul, what I can see of it, is hardly flawless.”

“I don’t suppose any of us are.” Ardent stroked his leg, comfortingly. Yours is, Miro wanted to say, but he couldn’t. She won’t believe me. She’ll think it mere flattery, and be more likely to consider me a fraud after all. Please don’t ask me what your soul looks like, my lady. “You can’t see your own soul?”

He shook his head. “Parts of it. Mirrors do not reflect the soul, so what you can see of your own body, more or less. Somewhat less than more; shapeshifting does not affect how much of my own soul I can see. May we return to the matter of the assailants, my lady?”

“All right.” Ardent caressed his calf again, and then turned back to the pile of messages. “Let me see what else we’ve got.” She flicked the next message open. “Play says that my home wards are a disaster zone. She put a patch over the biggest hole, but I should rebuild them from scratch, or maybe just move. Ouch.” The next message came from a different sender: a little messenger fairy presenting an unrolled scroll. Ardent smacked her forehead with one hand. “Aaaand Skein wants to see me today. Just like she told me last night. And I forgot. Good job, me.” She wrinkled her nose at the fairy. “For a private audience this morning. Which I have not…quite…missed yet. Blight.”

“Not before the High Court?”

“No, and…I guess that’s a good thing. I don’t think the High Court meets today anyway. But at least it means I won’t have to pretend to be cordial with Fallen. I hope.” She sent an answer to the Queen’s adjunct, then summoned their costumes from the High Court two days ago and dressed both of them. She changed the colors – hers to varied greens, his to cream and gold. “I have no idea what proper dress is for a private audience in the fall of 1253. There’s no time to consult with Katsura, so we’ll just have to fake it and hope for the best.” She stood and held out a hand to him. “Let’s go.”

Miro touched his collar. “The leash.”

Ardent made a face and touched the white-gold collar to attach an ornamental chain to it. She linked the other end to a matching bracelet around her wrist. “Not like I want you out of arm’s reach anyway.”

He stepped down onto the couch to stand before her; with her standing on the floor of the sunken couch pit, their heads were about on level. She swept him into her embrace and surprised him with a kiss. He looped his arms around her neck in return, welcoming the intimacy with gratitude, easing his fear that he’d lost her trust. When she broke it off, she smiled at him, then shifted him to one arm and ported them away.

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Afterwards, Miro curled on top of Ardent, feeling better than he had in weeks – or ever, perhaps. He pulled a blanket over them and all but purred as Ardent stroked his hair. He raised his head enough to look into her face and smiled, absurdly happy. Even the sobering thought of the Path that lay before him could not dim his joy in the moment. “Thank you.”

Ardent laughed and kissed his nose. “You’re welcome. Silly man. Thank you.”

He snuggled down with his head beneath her chin, resting a hand over one of her delightful breasts. He loved the way they felt; that unfashionable droop left them much softer and squishier than the more popular high, firm ones. Then again, they’re part of Ardent. I would find a reason to adore any shape she wore, he thought, wryly. Miro gave a contented sigh, then said. “We should return to the Moon Etherium.”

Ardent wrapped her arms about him. “Oh, sugar. If this was supposed to make me feel better about taking you back into that pustulent blighthole, I have bad news for you. How about I go back alone and nose around? I can see what Play came up with.”

“We know Fallen can break the wards on your apartment. That must be an ability she powered with the phoenix rose. It’s only a matter of time before she unlocks its capability to bypass other defenses we take for granted. Like fey evasion. Which you’ve already proven can be bypassed with channeled power. I know you don’t like it, Ardent. But you need a channel of your own,” Miro said, softly.

She grimaced and sat up, still snuggling him. She pulled over some pillows to lean back against. “Tell me what exactly happened to you last night.”

Miro hesitated. “Promise me we will still go back to the Etherium after I do?”

Ardent made a face at him. She laid her fingers against his cheek. The furrows were gone now, the flesh healed as if it had never been injured, but Miro realized she was tracing where Cat had clawed him. He shivered, and she stopped, curling her legs and arms around him to cradle him closer. “I don’t want to see you hurt again. I need to know what went wrong. How to keep you safe next time. If there is a next time.”

“Safer,” Miro said, voice low. “Perfect safety is not an option available to me – or you, even, given the phoenix rose. But we still have to go back.”

She sighed, closing her eyes. “Safer, then. Sorry, Miro. I’m not as good at being insanely brave as you are.”

He looked into the radiance of her soul, bonfire-strong, unscarred by fear. Not because she’d never been afraid, but because she’d never allowed fear to compel her to do something she knew was wrong. You are much better at bravery than I am, my lady, he thought, but he didn’t try to tell her that. Instead, he took a deep breath and explained, as dispassionately as he could, the events of the attack.

She swore when he described his inability to contact her. “I never should have stopped messages. And we need to give you a way to contact me despite a stop, too.”

“You thought the apartment was secure. So did I. There’s no reason to blame yourself, my lady.”

Ardent compressed her full lips in a grim expression. “Go on.”

He went through each event in order, including that the assailants had not believed him when he said she’d sent the message he received from Play. Miro did not speculate on Whispers Rain’s involvement. Ardent didn’t remark on the timing either, except to snarl at it as unfortunate.

When he finished, she sat in silence for a moment, still snuggling him in her lap and stroking his back. The fur on her legs was pleasantly soft against his skin, not at all like a goat’s. “I’m wondering if we can use Sun aether to ward you, like an object,” she said at last. “It works on golems, but not on mortals. I’ve never tried it on a fey. And it might not help, since they still hurt Sessile. But it’d be better than nothing.”    

“I am certainly amenable to the attempt,” Miro said. Ardent sighed again, and Miro turned to straddle her legs and hug her. “I am open to alternatives, if you’ve come up with any. But in their absence…”

“We should get back. I know, honey.” Ardent kissed him, gently at first, and then passionately. “I suppose I can’t distract you again.”

Miro smiled, and nuzzled her neck, then breathed into one of her long, elegant ears. “Oh, you could, at least once more.” He chuckled. “Probably several times. I’d hoped to be a trifle more focused on our central problem – locating the phoenix rose. But apparently the emphasis there is on ‘a trifle’.” Moments from the investigation of the previous days flashed through his mind: talking to the farmers; tracing Ocean Discourse; dancing with his father. He straightened in Ardent’s lap. “Is my father’s journal with you, or is it at the apartment?”

Ardent gestured to the pile of things on one of the chairs. “It’s in there.”

Miro gave her a quick kiss, then scrambled out of bed to find it. “My father was able to give me some clues while we were dancing last night, which promptly dropped from my worthless mind until just now. I need to look them up before I forget again.” He pulled the notebook from the heap, and sat in the opposite chair to flip through it.

Ardent walked over to him, still nude, and folded her arms on the back of his chair as she leaned down to look over his shoulder with him. “What did he tell you?”

“One uses a phoenix rose via extractors. It’s kind of a way of filtering the creature’s power so that it can be used by a fey. The little cage we saw in the immersion last night was one such extractor. They require specialized components, varying based on what one can do with them. I know which ones Fallen is and isn’t gathering, but I can’t remember exactly which ones are for what. Here.” He stopped on the section about extractors, and scanned down. He conjured a pen to his hand to put an X beside all the extractors that required one of the items Jino had said Fallen wasn’t gathering. Then he went back through and put a tick mark beside any that used ivory or alabaster.    

Only one extractor needed both. “What does that one do?” Ardent asked.

Miro recognized the name his father had given the device: The Harbinger. It also required some of the things his father had specified Fallen wasn’t gathering, but that meant nothing. She might not have been gathering those because she already had them in sufficient quantities. He turned the page to look at the description again anyway. “It’s…transformative force. You use it to take an existing kind of power and change it into a smaller amount of a different kind of power. At the weak level, you could siphon the aether out of an enchantment, or a ward, or a golem, and turn it into something else. Since it’s acting directly upon aether, aether is not an effective defense against it. A good ward or a powerful enchantment would take longer to destroy, but it wouldn’t be proof against it.”

“So…what would the something-else that it gets turned into be?”    

“A new form of aether. It might have the properties of Sun aether in the Moon Etherium, or it might just be less of a different sort of aether. Dad wasn’t sure on that part of the theory.” Miro stared down at the notebook.

“If he’s never been able to do any of these things, how does he have such precise theories about them?”

“They’re mathematical permutations. It all follows logically from the things that can be done with firebuds, albeit on a scale so small that it’s only perceptible via aether.” He closed the notebook and stood.    

Ardent braced her hands on the chair back to prop her torso just high enough to put her head level with his. “And at the strong level?”

“Mm?” Miro met her eyes, wishing he’d taken her up on her half-joking suggestion of distracting him. That it wasn’t too late. Once was not nearly enough.

“Of that extractor. You said the weak level could do what we saw your attackers do, to my wards and to Sessile. What could it do at a powerful level?”    

“Ah. Right. It could destroy an Etherium, and create a new, weaker one.”

Ardent straightened so fast she cracked her head against the ceiling. She blinked at him. “Oh. Well. That’s not ominous at all.”

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Ardent woke to find herself curled around Miro: one arm and one leg over his blanketed body, his head tucked under her chin. Her back was cold, because at some point she’d kicked off the blanket, and her chiton had ridden up around her waist. Not that modesty had any bearing here since she’d paraded about naked in front of him for fifteen minutes last night anyway. She cringed inwardly and shifted her head back, using aether to reposition her chiton.

Miro turned his face up to hers as she withdrew. “Good morning,” he said, softly.

Embarrassed, she moved her arm and leg off of him. “Morning. Sorry about…all that.”

His golden-tan features looked perplexed. “What are you apologizing for?”

“Forcing myself on you – I should’ve let you make another bed, I mean – I just…” She trailed off, not wanting to make excuses for herself.

He lifted indigo eyebrows, incredulous. “Forcing yourself on…you realize we’re in the Broken Lands, right? I can evade if I do not wish to be touched.”

She scrunched her nose at him. “Yeah, all right, maybe not literally forcing. But you still want my help to save your father. You’re not really in a position to do anything that might offend me. Like rejecting my drunken advances.” She rolled onto her back and put her hands over her eyes. “Thank you for rejecting my drunken advances, by the by.”    

“You’re welcome,” Miro said, with a strange timber to his voice. After a moment, he added, “It did take considerable effort on my part—”

Ardent cringed deeper into the mattress. “I really am sorry.”

“—because I desperately want to make love with you, and having you pliant and willing and eager next to me made it extremely difficult to keep in mind the ‘drunken’ part. Ardent, I was not making an excuse when I said I didn’t want to take advantage of you.”

Ardent parted the fingers covering one eye to peer between them at him, half-hoping, half-afraid. “Miro, I…I don’t want you to think you need to…make me feel better…”

He reached out to take her hand from her face, curled her fingers over his and pressed her knuckles to his lips. “Do you know, I have been terrified from the moment that I met you that I would discomfort you with my unwanted interest? You are right; I have been afraid I would offend you. I am still afraid I will offend you.” Miro’s hand trembled under hers. “But not by rejecting your advances. By making my own. I am not saying this to make you feel better, except insofar as I cannot bear to have you under the misapprehension that I am repulsed by you. You are the most compelling, attractive person I have ever met. If you prefer that I not act on this attraction, for whatever reason, of course I will not do so again. But that will not change that I feel it.” He swallowed, his almond eyes intent and terrifyingly earnest as he met her gaze, his breathing shallow.

She rolled onto her side again to face him, moved her free hand to caress his cheek. It seemed so improbable, that her position of power over him could be what had stopped him from voicing his own desire, rather than what stopped him from expressing a lack thereof. He’s still afraid. Even now, he might be saying what he thinks he must to keep my goodwill. The thought seemed unkind, to accuse him of being so manipulative. Ardent whispered, “I won’t…Miro, I am helping you because it’s the right thing to do. Whether we make love or not, that won’t change. I don’t want you to fear that I’ll abandon you or leave you stranded because you said the wrong thing. Or because you were a little too forward, or not forward enough, or…whatever. I’m not gonna desert you, or turn my back on your dad while he’s enslaved. You understand that, don’t you?”

Miro closed his eyes and turned his head enough to kiss her palm. “I do. Thank you.”

This might be a mistake. Ardent couldn’t convince herself that it was; he was too close, too inviting to resist. She threaded her fingers through his silky indigo hair and cupped the back of his head. He was breathless, his lean body arched into her touch. She shifted forward the remaining inches between them, and brought her lips to his.

That first contact was tentative. Miro kissed her gently, lips only brushing hers, as if he feared she would tell him to stop, or could not believe he’d been permitted to start. He freed one arm from the blanket to stroke hers, then used aether to remove the blanket entirely. He slid into her embrace, flattening curly hair under his palm as he cupped her head and kissed her deeply, with a desperate hunger. Ardent felt light-headed in the face of his passion, drunk again on shared desire. She caressed his bare shoulder, then slid her hand under the toga to stroke his back: the skin velvet-smooth and fresh from his latest transformation the night before. He was an Etherium native, with no need for roughened skin or callouses. Even she had softened her skin at Katsura’s insistence for the High Court, and then left it soft. For this, if she was to be honest. For him. She’d wanted to be touchable, for Miro to touch her.

And now he was.

And Love, it was glorious.

Miro pushed her onto her back against the bed and knelt over her, knees to either side of her waist, hands on her shoulders, thumbs sliding under the fabric of her sleep-rumpled chiton. He moved from her lips to kiss her cheek and jaw, then licked and nibbled at her throat. When she whimpered with pleasure at the graze of his teeth against the sensitive skin beside the jugular, Miro’s hands clenched against her. He lifted himself and her from the bed on a cushion of aether, so that his arms could curl unimpeded around her while his mouth lingered on her throat. She held his head in place with one large hand as she played with loose strands of straight hair and breathed in ragged gasps, half-lost between pleasure and need. When he paused for breath and sat up just enough to see her face, Ardent traced her thumb over his soft, sensuous lips. “Love,” she whispered, trying to catch her breath. “Are all Sun lords this sexy or is it just you?”

He chuckled, nipped at the ball of her thumb, suckled it while she arched into him. “All I know is that there is no other fey anywhere as enrapturing as you. Ardent. Divine, Ardent. You are amazing.” He brought one hand around to smooth her chiton over her collarbone, inched lower, paused. “May I…?”

Ardent giggled and arched her back to press the upper curve of her breast against his palm. “You know I could evade if I didn’t want to be touched, right?” she teased.

Miro half-laughed, breathless, and caressed the soft flesh through the cloth, cupping his fingers around a breast larger than his hand. Ardent used aether to cut a slit down the front of her chiton, and pulled the top section apart to bare a few inches of warm brown skin in silent invitation. Miro caught his breath, swallowed, and slid his fingertips under the fabric to explore silken skin, to brush over the stiffened nub of a nipple. “Ardent.

She arched into his fingers, electrified as he took the nipple between finger and thumb, stroked the thumb up and down over sensitive flesh. “Oh Love. Love, please,” she whimpered, not even sure what she was begging for. “Please.”

Miro pushed the upper half of the chiton to one side to bare her chest and gazed down at her for a moment, his expression one of wonder and awe. Then he bent to flick his tongue over the hard peak, and she writhed in the grip of longing. He fastened his mouth over her and sucked, licking, nipping, while she whimpered and squirmed and begged incoherently for more. His hand slid down her ribcage, over her stomach, along her hip. His body shifted on aether from on top of her to pressed against her side, exposing her other breast to his attentions. His tongue lapped in broad strokes and then flicked in little motions over the taut nipple. His hand pet the curve of her thigh underneath the chiton, exploring soft fur, and then moved between her legs. She spread her thighs and tilted her hips into his hand, eager for his touch. Miro groaned around her breast as he parted her labia and slid one finger over the slick, sensitive skin between. He drew slow, sensual circles over her clitoris, then slid one finger into her and rubbed his thumb over her clit instead. Miro used aether to make subtle adjustments to his hand to fit her better, to reach deeper inside her, to make his thumb vibrate against her nub. She writhed wildly, thrusting into his hand. He raised his head to watch her face. “Tell me what you like,” he said, his voice a hoarse, urgent whisper, demanding. “I need to know what you want.”

“You,” she gasped, hardly able to articulate anything more. “That. Oh, Miro, that – please—” her hips pulsed as if under his control, not hers. “—please – I need – if you don’t stop, I’ll—” Instead of stopping, he slid another finger inside her, thrusting deeper, pressing hard until her body buckled in climax. She clamped her thighs together around his hand, gasping at the intensity of release, the rippling aftershocks of ecstasy.

Ardent opened her eyes to see him watching her, smiling, looking as happy as she felt. “Miro,” she said, and kissed him, because it was enough and yet not nearly sufficient. She rolled him over on the aether and stripped him, while he let her, while he finished undressing her. She’d known what his nude body would look like; she had restored him to it often enough. But it was different to see it with her eyes, all warm beige skin over firm, flexible muscles, the body of a well-trained acrobat at an impossible peak of physical condition. Ardent knelt against his thighs to caress his chest and abdomen, watching his face as Miro closed his eyes to arch into her touch. How weird must I seem to a Sun lord, with my bent furry legs and extra height? But there was no mistaking his arousal, as her hand moved down from his stomach to his groin. The hard length of his penis twitched in anticipation of her touch. He tilted his hips towards her fingers, and she caved to temptation and took him in her hand. She ran her fingers up and down his erection, wondering if his was actually smaller than those of males from the Moon Etherium or if her memories from more than a decade ago were inaccurate. Ardent couldn’t bring herself to actually care. She curled her body to take him in her mouth, her senses so attuned to him she could feel his pleasure as her own. He curled his fingers through her hair, thrusting against her mouth. After a few moments, Miro slid his hands to her shoulders and tugged her higher. “Ardent – please – I want to be inside you – may I…?”

In answer, she shifted to straddle him, and gasped as he slid into her, his whole body arching into the union. After a few thrusts, Miro pulled her down to kiss, then spoke in breathless gasps. “I don’t know how it is…in Moon. But in Sun, ahh, the recipient adjusts the giver’s body to their satisfaction. If you like…?”

“Ohhhh. That’s practical.” Ardent used aether to enlarge him inside of her, a slow shift as she pulsed her hips against his. She shivered at the renewed intensity of it, at the building pleasure.

Miro made an alteration of his own; Ardent couldn’t tell exactly what, except that it felt even better to slide against him, his groin pressing exactly right against her clitoris when they thrust together. She cried out in delight, and he asked, “Is that good?”

“Love, Miro, it’s incredible,” she said, or tried to say. It might have come out as just, “Miro, oh, Miro…!”

They fed on each other’s pleasure, aether-enhanced senses attuning them so well that they climaxed together, in a fog of bliss. Ardent rolled over in the air and cuddled Miro to her chest as they drifted back down to lie against the bed.

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Ardent gave a breathy little laugh and shaped a glamour to light the interior. She smiled down at him, still holding his hand. “Just gonna get you a little farther out, then I can patch you up.”

“It looks much worse than it is,” Miro assured her.

“That’s great, because you look like a mortal who lost a fight with a thresher.”

“Are threshers very dangerous?”

Ardent laughed. “Don’t get into any fights with them. Especially if you’re mortal. Or as vulnerable as one.” She swallowed, her smile strained by worry.

Sessile’s motion ceased. “We’re here. Should I surface?”

“Yes, thanks, Sessile. Shift to the mortal world only.” They ascended into a dark wood, the shape of the leaf canopy above barely visible. Ardent curled her caprine legs onto the bed beside Miro, and leaned over him. “I haven’t healed anyone but mortals and animals in the last couple of centuries, so…here’s hoping I remember how.” She dismissed the bandages over his face, and wrote in aether over his skin. Miro sighed and closed his eyes again as the pain faded. Ardent worked her way down his front, then had him roll over and did his back. She made a few extra passes around his head, biting her tongue in concentration. “There…how’s that?”

“Much better, my lady. Thank you.” Miro shifted to sit upright, and covered her hand with his. “We can go back now, if you please.”

“You’re still shivering.” Ardent steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s nothing. Just nerves.”

Ardent shifted a little closer and kissed his forehead. “You can stop being insanely brave now,” she whispered.

Miro shook his head. “Not yet,” he answered, just as softly. “When my father’s safe. Then I can stop.”

Another breathless laugh. “Look, we both need sleep. We can do that just as well in the Broken Lands, where you’re as invulnerable as any other fey. So let’s stay out here for tonight, and in the morning we can talk about what’s next. All right? The thrice-blighted Moon Etherium will still be there tomorrow. More’s the pity.”

Miro bowed his head in acquiescence. “As you wish.”

Ardent let out a breath. She moved his hand to rest on her wrist. “Here. Channel from me.”

He blinked at her. “What? Why would I—”

“I brought my boots, I’ll walk back to the Etherium and fill up again after you channel from me. There’s no reason for you to be helpless out here.”

I’m not helpless. I have you. Her pulse under his fingers was strong and steady, her skin warm, the aether palpable and inviting as an oasis to his no-longer-dulled senses. Miro swallowed. “As you wish.” He scooted back to make more room for her in the bed.

She hesitated. “We don’t really need…I mean, we’re not in an Etherium, and I’m not even High Court, so…” He raised his eyebrows at her, and the satyress gave another nervous laugh. “Never mind.” She lay down next to him.

Miro pressed against her side. He curled one leg over her thigh and rested his hand against her throat, feeling her pulse. “Tell me if it’s uncomfortable.”

“Mm hmm.” Her breathing was not quite steady, her pulse quickening. Miro relaxed, opening himself to her aether. It flowed in, and he gasped at the pleasure of it, the relief of being quenched after days of acute thirst. His awareness of Ardent beside him only increased as aether enhanced his senses. Her back arched to press her throat into his fingers, as if eager to pour herself into his body. Her lips parted, breathing in quick gasps, body writhing against his in a way that was deeply sensual, unimaginably alluring. His own pulse pounded with growing lust, his erection throbbing against her hip. Ardent made a tiny whimpering sound, her arm clutching at his side. Miro tore himself away, panting, afraid he would lose control entirely if he remained. She whimpered again at his withdrawal, her back arched as if to lure him back. He moved further away, putting a foot of empty bed between them, and fought to control his breathing.

Ardent slumped back against the bedding. Dark eyes fluttered open, and she turned to him with a slow, half-lidded smile. “Mmm. Love, but you’re so good at this. If it feels even half this delicious for you, then I finally understand why you’re so willing to channel for me.” She stretched her arms lazily over her head, the generous curves of her breasts shifting under her chiton. His fingers itched to caress them, to explore their inviting softness. He fisted his hand around the blanket instead. “I’ve still got more, if you want. It won’t hurt me.” Her husky contralto beckoned with the promise of a warm reception. She reached out to caress his cheek, but at his stiffness, her face fell. Ardent withdrew. “Sorry, I shouldn’t—”

Miro caught her hand, unable to bear the rejected look in her eyes. “I would love to,” he said, hoarsely, kissing her fingers. “I just – if it’s half so intoxicating for you – I can’t take advantage of that.”

She raised her eyes to his, then lowered brown lids, a smile flickering and fading on full lips. “Fair nuf. I should run back to the Etherium an…” The satyress swung her legs off of the bed and almost fell out of it. Miro scrambled to grab her shoulder and steady her. “Whoa.”

“It can wait.” Miro tugged gently, and she half-toppled back to lay her head in his lap, lower legs still off the bed.

“Dizzy,” she said. “’s a nice dizzy, though.” She reached up to pat his cheek, and he turned his face to kiss her palm. Ardent smiled, then curled onto her side and nuzzled his stomach. “I forgot to make a bed for me.”

“I’ll make one.” Miro started to gesture.

She put her hand over his arm and he paused. “Do you have to?”    

Miro swallowed, trying to will his renewed erection away. “…no. If you’re sure you don’t mind.”

Ardent gave him a lazy, dreamy smile that did nothing for his ragged self-control. “I’m sure I don’t mind, sugar.”

He did use aether to float her into a more comfortable position in the bed, straightened out lengthwise. He made a new blanket to put over her, and slid under the first set himself, figuring an extra layer of cloth between them was advisable. Miro decided the toga she’d put him in already was comfortable enough to sleep in.

“Mmm.” Ardent watched him with sleepy black eyes. “Lights out.” Her light-glamour vanished, leaving them in darkness. “Oh, Sessily, you sleep too, little girl. Gotta conserve aether out here.”

“Uh-huh, m’lady.” Sessile went still, and her walls turned opaque, making the darkness absolute.

The mattress shifted as Ardent moved closer to him, until she could wrap an arm over his side and snuggle into him. “G’night, Miro.”    

“Sleep well, Ardent,” he murmured. Given all his conflicted feelings and the rush of adrenaline from his escape, Miro did not expect to sleep soon. But the warmth of Ardent’s soul, and her body pressed close despite the blankets between them, comforted him. The unwanted arousal faded as she slept, and soon he was asleep as well.

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Miro appeared in Ardent’s darkened living room, next to the spiral staircase. He dashed up them two at a time. “Ardent! Ardent!” Below, he thought he heard a crashing noise by one of the walls. He reached the top of the spiral into a moonlit bedroom and ran, half-stumbling, towards the giant bed. “Ardent! Summon Sessile, she’s under attack!”    

Ardent twisted about, sitting upright in the bed. “Justice! Miro, what happened?”

Miro stumbled to a halt at the edge of the round bed, suddenly seeing what was in front of him. Ardent was naked, and not alone: Whispers Rain was sitting up beside her. She was wearing a tunic and tights now, but Miro had the impression she’d been naked a moment ago. No time to process this. “Summon Sessile,” he repeated, “she’s—”    

Sessile was in the room, curling up around the bed. Bull was crawling into her through a gap forced open between two of her segments. “What in the name of Justice are you doing with my golem?!” Ardent roared.

Bull wisely teleported away.

Ardent vaulted across the bed at Miro. He twisted to see what was behind him, and narrowly dodged as Cat tried to grab him. Ardent curled Miro to her chest with one arm instead. Her eyes flashed with stored power as she lashed out with her other fist. Cat attempted to evade.

And failed.

The blow sent him reeling, arms flailing as he struck the floor. Rain screamed. Ardent leaped from the bed, Miro still held tight in one arm, and planted a hoof on the panther-man’s chest. “Who are you, and what are you doing in my home messing with my people?”

The panther snarled and teleported away. Ardent stomped her foot to the floor with a growl, then glanced down at Miro. “Miro, sugar, what happened? How badly hurt are you?”

“I’m fine,” Miro lied. “We need to go after them before the teleport-trail fades.”

“Honey, you’re wounded, I can’t—”

“Loyalty,” Rain whispered, crawling to the edge of the bed. “They hurt you.”

Miro glanced at her, at the hideous rope of obligation on her soul. It is not chance she is here, or chance that my assailants were sure Ardent would not receive messages. And if I accuse her, Ardent will not believe me.

Ardent hovered a hand over his cut and bruised face, not touching him. At some point she’d remembered she was naked and made a chiton for herself. “I can’t heal you in the Etherium – Justice abandon it all—” she looked over her shoulder to the place where Cat had disappeared.

Rain followed her look. “Go after him. I’ll take care of Mirohirokon.”

No! Miro clutched at Ardent’s chiton. “Don’t leave me here. You’ll need more power to catch him,” he said. She hesitated, torn. “Please, Ardent. Please.”

A new bubble formed in the air before the bed, and all three of them looked to it in surprise. Play Until Collapsing Dreams stepped out of it. “Ardent, you’ve had a breach, and they left a major vulnerability in your wards, and your pet—” the cat-eared fey started to say, then took in the scene. “—oh, I guess you know.”

Ardent smiled grimly, and shifted her grip on Miro to cradle him in both arms. “Yeah. I know. Can you identify the intruders and tell me who they are?”

“Uh.” Play rubbed the back of her neck, fluffing her short dark hair. Her eyes went to Miro, took in the blood-smeared slashes on his face, the shredded, blood-stained clothing. “Yes. Yes, I can do that. Give me a minute.”

“Take all the minutes you need.” Ardent walked over to Sessile’s injured side and used aether to mend the rent. “How’re you doing, baby?”

Sessile sighed and wiggled her tail tip. “Better. My wards still hurt, though.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Play, give me everything you can on those Idealless rot-ridden beasts. You need anything from me? Permissions on the home. I’ll set those now.” She shifted to support Miro on a cushion of aether against her chest, and made a series of runes in the air.

“Yes, that. That should be good. Where are you going?”

“I’m gonna get Miro out of this Justice-deprived blighthole of a city.” She gave Whispers Rain a regretful look. “Sorry, sweetheart, but—”

Rain shook her head, waving off the apology. “No, no. You do what you have to do. We can catch up later.” She offered a hesitant smile, eyes worried.

Miro tried to disengage from the satyress’s hold. “Ardent, no, I can’t leave—”

“Honey, you can argue with me when you’re not bleeding. We’ll know who they are and have evidence against them soon, I can catch them later, I am fixing you now.” She cupped the back of his head in one hand to look in his eyes. “All right?”

He wanted to argue with her, feeling a terrible urgency for reasons he couldn’t articulate, the sense that they needed to do something now. But Ardent was right. Those inept minions would not have been entrusted with the location of the phoenix rose. He and Ardent would be in a better position once they had whatever information Play could obtain. Miro sank down, wincing, and closed his eyes. “All right. But I am coming back.”

“We can talk about that when you’re not bleeding, too. Sessile, open up, please.” Ardent ducked as she carried Miro into the earthserpent’s body. She waved a hand over the empty cargo area, conjuring a bed that spanned the width of the serpent’s body, and lay Miro down in it.

“I truly am not dying,” he told her.

“That’s great news, hon. Stay put for me anyway.” She sat on the edge of the bed and laced her fingers through his. A conjured toga replaced his shredded robe, and summoned bandages covered the rent flesh. Ardent closed her eyes and extended her arm to touch Sessile’s side, tracing patterns over the transparent wall. “Is that better, Sessile?”

“Mostly, I think. It still feels a little weird.”

“If you’ll be all right for tonight, we’ll take you to Contemplation After the Storm tomorrow and he can straighten you out.”

“Sure, I’m fine. Where are we going?”

“Just a min.” Ardent pulled her bag out of her locket, then dumped the contents of the bag on a chair. The space-expanding enchantments on both items would fail quickly in the aether-starved Broken Lands. She summoned a few other things, including her walking boots and a crystal ball. She found her destination in the scrying device, and floated it out of the golem’s mouth to socket into her nose. “There. Port as far as you can, then earthswim to it.”

“On our way!” The view outside flickered to starlit darkness on the ridgeline at the edge of the Etherium. That darkness became absoute as Sessile plunged into the slope. A flutter of aether from the golem held Miro and Ardent in place against the change in orientation.

Miro drew in a deep breath in the still darkness. The absence of Moon aether all round him was a weight removed. The Broken Lands were parched, but at least they didn’t press upon him with an insistent demand he couldn’t meet. “I’m sorry I got you hurt, Sessile,” he told her, quietly.

“Oh, no, don’t be! You needed help!” Sessile said. “I’d much rather I got a little dinged up then you got killed! Or kidnapped or worse! That’d be terrible. And Ardent would be sad too.”

Miro’s lips twitched. “And we can’t go making Ardent sad.”


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Miro woke to darkness and a sense of wrongness. He pushed off the bedclothes and sat at the edge of the bed, trying to figure out what had woken him, trying to decide if it was nothing and he should go back to sleep. Perhaps it’s the wrongness of being sense-blind that woke me, he thought, dryly. He rose and drew on a dressing gown anyway, and had started for the stairwell to the living room when he saw a fey stranger with an ugly soul coming down it. Miro ducked back into his room and conjured a messenger to send to Ardent: “Intruder in the apartment. Please come.”

Instead of winking out to deliver the message, the will-o-wisp reported, “Ardent is not accepting messages at this time.”

Miro cursed inwardly, and instructed the wisp to relay as soon as it could: “Intruder on the bottom level, perhaps several. Includes a fey we saw at the party talking to Fallen: flying merman with black and white scales. Please come.” It had been too dark to make out the fey’s shape on the stairs, but soulsight needed no light. Miro reviewed his other options quickly: I can teleport, but only to where I already am. I can message my father, who can’t message me back. I could send a message to Play Until Collapsing Dreams, or Contemplation After the Storm, and hope that doesn’t make matters worse. I can hide.

He ducked into the wardrobe and closed its door, sinking down to its floor. He heard the door to the room open, and voices talking. “He was staying in this room, don’t see him now. Check the bathing chamber?”

“Didn’t we just go through the bathing chamber?”

“I assume there’s a private one.”

A third voice said, “Search the bedroom, too.”

Miro sent a message to Play Until Collapsing Dreams. “Intruders in Ardent’s apartment. At least three. Ardent blocking messages. Please help if you can.” The wisp winked out as someone yanked open the armoire door.

The strange fey had a monstrous shape, even by the standards of the Moon Etherium: a kind of giant wolf with tentacles rayed out from their back, and a scorpion’s tail. They grinned at him. “Found him!” they yelled.

Miro considered yelling for help, but even if Ardent’s room wasn’t soundproofed – and why wouldn’t it be soundproofed? – the intruders were unconcerned about being overheard and could have rendered the area soundproof themselves. Instead, he rose and stepped from the armoire with all the Sun Etherium dignity he could muster. “Good evening, gentlefolk. May I inquire as to the reason for this visit?”

The other two intruders entered the guest room behind the wolf. One, who’d been the merman with the ugly soul at the party, was in the shape of a six-armed humanoid panther, head crested by horns. In his upper right hand, he held a short rod with purple-striped white petals bound to the top. The third fey had a minotaur’s form. All three had corrupted souls and thick obligations, though the mer-turned-panther was the worst of the lot. The panther-man parted his jaws in a fanged-tooth grin at Miro. “Heh. You may not. Bull, is he watched?”    

Miro didn’t recognize any of the three forms, but he knew the panther’s soul, and the minotaur’s looked vaguely familiar. They cared enough about being caught to use disguised forms. That’s something. “The hour is quite late, and you are intruding upon my space. Kindly depart,” Miro said, more to establish a tone of civility than out of any hope of compliance. The wolf lolled their tongue, amused.

The minotaur ignored him to fiddle with a crystal ball, tracing runes over it and twisting it.

The six-armed panther tapped one foot impatiently. “Well?”

“Give me a few minutes.” Bull tapped the crystal’s surface. “It’s designed to check for the wielder, not a random other fey. And it’s slow anyway.”

As the other fey were looking at Bull, Miro dove between the minotaur and the panther towards the open door behind them. The humanoid cat roared and made a grab for him with his left set of arms. He wasn’t accustomed to the extra limbs: the lower two were clumsy and the upper one didn’t have the reach as Miro somersaulted across the floor. He came to his feet by the door and ran for the stairs.

Aether swirled into a wall of rock before him. Miro pulled up short as his hands hit it. “Really, Sun boy?” The panther stepped through the bedroom door. He gestured, putting a stone wall on the corridor behind him, and another to cover the door opposite his bedroom. “How far do you think you can get without aether?”

I can still straddle to the mortal world and walk through this wall, Miro thought, but they can straddle too, and they’ll have aether-speed on me. And that trick will only work once. What is my strategy, here?    

The panther stalked towards him. When the other two fey joined them in the corridor, the feline put a wall over the door to the bedroom, too.

A will-o-wisp messenger formed by Miro’s head. Right. I’m stalling for time and hoping someone rescues me. He reached for the message. It was from Play Until Collapsing Dreams: “Can’t port in without permission. Trying to bypass Ardent’s block. Hang on.”

“What’s that?” The panther grabbed for the message, but the will-o-wisp dissolved into mist at his touch. He snarled at Miro. “Who’s talking to you, Sun boy?” He’d taken a large form, almost a foot taller than Miro, and glowered down at him.

Miro kept his back straight. I will not cower. “My lady Ardent Sojourner. She checks in on me periodically.”

“Hah. She’s got better things to do right now than talk to you. And how would you answer?”

The wolf-beast conjured a messenger. “She’s still blocking, Cat.”    

Cat narrowed his eyes at Miro, and tried to grab him. Miro didn’t have fey evasion, but the Moon Host fey was clumsy enough in his unaccustomed form that Miro was able to dodge the first hand. Miro feinted a counterstrike, which Cat evaded automatically, and dodged to the left. A brief scramble ensued. It ended when the panther slammed cage walls into place on either side of Miro, then seized him by the throat from the front. “Don’t lie to me, light-brat.”

Miro clawed at the panther’s fingers ineffectually. The panther-man took his wrists in his extra hands and dragged them down with aether-fueled strength. The panther raised him from the floor and slammed him back against the stone wall, grinning ferally. Miro fought for breath, spots swimming in his vision after the impact.

“Don’t break him, Cat. We need him alive,” the lupine said. “How’s that check coming, Bull?”

The minotaur approached Miro, circled the crystal over his face, then drew back. “Sorry, gonna be another minute.”

“Take your time,” Cat growled. “I always wanted a fey toy to play with, anyway.” He loosened his grip on Miro’s throat slightly. “Who sent you a message? What did they say?”

Miro gasped. “That you’re a clumsy buffoon and Fallen should find a better class of minion.”

The panther-man bared fangs as long as fingers. “Wrong answer, cat toy.” He unsheathed the claws of one free hand and ran them lovingly down the side of Miro’s face, drawing blood. “But you get it, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes. Fear. You can act arrogant, but you know how helpless you are.” He closed, pressing the length of his body against Miro’s. “Can’t evade. Can’t escape.”

“Wait, how’d he know Fallen sent us?” the wolf asked.

Any time you would like to bypass that block would be lovely, Play. Miro closed his eyes. “Well, I know now. And you can’t do anything, little kitty. I’m no good to your mistress dead.”

“He’s not being watched by anyone,” Bull reported. “Still waiting on the tracking.”

“That’s all right, cat toy. It’s more fun playing with your prey while they’re still alive and squirming,” the panther growled. He licked a broad, abrasive tongue over the cuts on Miro’s face, then shredded Miro’s robe and night shirt dramatically under two sets of claws, lacerating the skin underneath

“Uh, Cat, what are you…” The wolf edged nearer.

“Just having some fun. Haven’t you ever wanted to fuck a scared fey?” Cat flipped Miro around, evading without effort Miro’s vain attempt to kick him. Cat slammed Miro’s face against the wall, and shredded the back of his clothing, leaving shallow furrows in the skin. Miro gritted his teeth under the urge to scream.

“No. That’s disgusting, Hunt – Cat. Stop that.” The wolf drew closer and slid their tentacles between Miro’s body and the panther-man.    

Miro wished he could think of something else brave to say, wished he weren’t grateful for the intervention, wished he wasn’t just as sick and scared as Cat had taunted him with being. He could have made my clothing disappear but it was more fun to tear them. Just playing, with a sapient possession – Miro opened his eyes as he suddenly realized who else he could contact. If I can get out.

“He’s not being tracked, either. Can we just go now?” Bull asked.    

Time to use that one chance. Miro shifted to the mortal world. He fell through the wall, Cat’s hands, the tentacles—

—the floor.

He heard the fey shout and grab for him, but fey who never left their Etherium had no reason to shift to the mortal world, and were not quick to think of the possibility. By the time they realized what had happened, he was below the floor and conjuring a farspeaker. “Sessile, port to me NOW!”

Before he’d finished the message, Miro struck a ward – the fey below Ardent had made their wards impenetrable in both worlds. He scrambled and slid to the edge of the ward. As he dropped into empty space, Fallen’s second-rate minions shifted to the mortal plane and flew after him.

The air beside Miro shimmered, and then Sessile uncurled out of nothingness. She blinked. “Help!” Miro shouted at her, in freefall. She snaked after him. The lupine ported to him, and Miro twisted away from his tentacles as Sessile caught up to them and chomped her mouth neatly over Miro. “Port, top of the Etherium,” he told her. “Keep falling.” Still floating in freefall inside of her, Miro grabbed for one of the ridges of her interior segments, and pulled himself to one of the chairs. He tried to seat himself as best he could, wincing at the touch of the backrest against his lacerated back. Through Sessile’s glamour-window-walls, he could see them plummet past the towers and skybridges of the Moon Etherium. “Pull out of the fall now, please, gently. As if you’re hauling a fragile cargo you didn’t want to break with a too-sudden stop.”

“Um. I can’t actually fly,” Sessile said, sheepishly.

“…right. Can you port to the ground and earthswim to slow the fall?”

“Sure, I can do that.”

“Please do so.” The scene outside shifted from the glamour-lit cityscape to the road before the palace. They plunged through it and into complete darkness. Miro lurched forward in the chair as Sessile began to decelerate. “Is your interior warded?”


“Good.” Might be safer underground anyway. Although that justice-lost cat has an airswimming form and is probably familiar enough with earthswimming to do so casually. “Please let me know if anyone makes contact with you or tries to enter, all right?”

“Sure! So…why are they trying to kill you, m’lord?”

“I think they mean to capture me so Fallen can have another channel. Can you teleport into Ardent’s bedroom?” Miro did not have much hope that Sessile would have better luck than Play, but they should at least try.

A moment’s pause, then: “No, she’s not responding to the request.”

“Are you able to port about at random?” Miro asked.

“I’m not so good with random. Can you give me a place?”

“The Promenade?”

Sessile grunted. “There’s someone on me.” The scene outside changed from darkness to the Promenade. The arched crystal bridge with its shop-portals was a brightly lit jewel against the night. The golem juddered as she hit the street, almost knocking Miro loose from his chair. She hadn’t quite finished decelerating from their earlier freefall. He twisted to look around them, and saw Cat clinging to Sessile’s tail.

“Blight take him. Can you shake him off?”

“Probably not.” She thrashed her tail, but he didn’t jar loose. “He’s…ow…he’s hurting me.” She sounded suddenly small and scared. Bull ported in near Cat and clung to a couple of the long spines adorning Sessile’s back. Cat was doing something with his rod against Sessile’s side. Miro saw an actual hole, not just glamour-transparency, start to peel open on her flank where he was prodding.

“Make a fuss. Yell for help. I’ll try to draw them off you, Sessile.” Miro jumped out of his chair and yelled at the gap with a bravado he did not feel, “You want me, O Pitiful Inept Hunter? Come get me.

Then he snapped his fingers on both hands, and disappeared.

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Ardent watched Miro descend the stairs with a mixture of longing, regret, and relief. As pleasant as cuddling with him was, it stirred too many feelings she really, really should not act upon. She didn’t need to channel from him right now and had no excuse to want to, and the close contact had been an unwanted reminder of how easy it would be to just take. Whatever she wanted from him. Everything she wanted from him.

He is absurdly brave, to be here, helpless and vulnerable, among people who are encouraged to hate everything he represents. She tried to imagine walking into Sun Etherium under such circumstances, to be a channel for a stranger and with absolutely no defenses of her own. Yeah, no wonder I’m attracted to him. I always have liked the brave, noble types. Not to mention sweet and vulnerable. But while ‘hello, you’re helpless and completely in my power, wanna fuck?’ may not quite top the list of Terrible Things to Do to a Person, it’s definitely way up there.

All right, there are a lot of worse things I could do, starting with “everything Fallen is doing to poor Jinokimijin”. Notwithstanding that: still awful, still not going to do it.

Ardent squirmed on the couch, still fantasizing about Miro despite her resolve. She could go downstairs now, tell him she wanted to channel some power so she could make an amulet to protect him against mind-clouding glamours, like the immersion. He wouldn’t object to that. He’d encourage her; he always did. She wouldn’t take much; enough to relax him, intoxicate him. And afterwards, Miro would kiss her again, but this time when he apologized, she’d silence his protests with a kiss of her own. It wouldn’t be as if she were forcing him; he’d enjoy it too…

All right, Ardent, that’s enough of that. You’re two hundred and thirty-five years too old to be indulging in this kind of nonsense. Go to bed. Your own bed.

Too lazy to walk upstairs, Ardent teleported to her bed. Like her living room, the bedroom was round, with a glamour to make the ceiling look like a dome of glass. It showed the starry night sky above the Moon Etherium, streaked by clouds, crescent moon waxing on the horizon. Her bed was an enormous round thing that filled a third of the room, piled with silvery blue silk pillows and velvet blankets. The colors reminded her of Whispers Rain as she burrowed into the disorderly heap. Sure. Great. Let’s think about my former wife instead. At least I don’t have to worry about taking advantage of my power over her.

Love, but it’d been good to see her again, after all these years. I wish we’d had time to talk. I wonder if she still performs? She was aether dancing, but that’s not the same. I should’ve asked her to dance. Not that I could’ve and still kept an eye on Miro. I wish I could talk to her now. I wish I could fall asleep.

A twitch of aether stripped her chiton of its ornamental trim to make it a nightgown and removed her undergarments. She tried to turn her mind back to the problem she was actually here to solve. She retrieved Play’s tracer from her locket and checked the list of locations Ocean Discourse had been at since the tracer had started. None of them were of any interest, though it turned out she had been at the party earlier. The golem informed her, with a disdainful sniff of its cartoonishly large canine nose, that Ocean Discourse was now in a private area of the Moon Etherium. The tracer tapped its quill against its scroll. “I will record her location when she’s in public again.”

Ardent patted its canine head. “All right, great.” She set the golem down on the glass stand by her bed.

A blue hummingbird messenger winged into the room from the stairwell. Ardent froze, watching as it flew to her. Rain’s messenger.    

The bird whispered its message into her ear. “Hi, Ardent. It was good to see you at the party. I’m sorry we didn’t get more time to talk.” When it finished, the messenger melted into a curl of mist.

Ardent hesitated, then conjured her farspeaker. “Me too. How have you been?” I already asked that at the party, didn’t I? Idiot.

“I’ve been…missing you. Are you busy? May I join you?”

“Sure, I’d love to see you.” Ardent told the apartment’s wards to let Whisper Rains in, then held her breath until aether curled in the air before her bed. It uncurled again like flower petals, revealing Whispers Rain at the center. She was still wearing her spangled body suit and ribbon-dress from the party. Ardent remembered belatedly to ornament her chiton into more of a day-wear garment. “Hello, Rain.”    

Rain smiled, offering a little wave, and then turned a circle in the air, butterfly wings fluttering. Her curly, vibrant blue hair swung in a halo around her head. “Everything’s just the same.”

“Yeah. I don’t come by much. Kinda surprised the Queen never reclaimed the space. I suppose it’s just about as easy to make new space if you need any, nowadays.” Ardent lay on her stomach on the bed, torso propped by her elbows and a pillow. Rain wasn’t exactly as she remembered, but she was still tiny and delicate, the physical opposite of Ardent. Ardent patted the bed beside her. “Have a seat, if you want.”

Rain perched on the edge of the bed, curling one graceful leg beneath her as she twisted to watch the satyress. “I still can’t believe you re-affiliated.”

“Heh. Me either.” Ardent covered one side of her face with a hand. “The High Court’s worse than ever. I don’t know if I can make this stick, to be honest.”

Rain reached out with a slim brown hand to touch Ardent’s wrist. “You have to stay out of politics this time,” she chided, with a fond smile.

“Yeah, tell politics to stay away from me and we’ll see.” Ardent let Rain draw her hand down, then folded Rain’s small fingers between her own. “How’s that working out for you?”

Her former wife shook her head and waggled the fingers of her free hand. “Imperfectly,” she said, wistful. “But! I am the lead performer for the Winter Solstice Festival this year.”

A smile split Ardent’s face. “That’s fantastic! Do you have your dance choreographed yet?”

“Mostly choreographed. We’re still working out some issues. Vixen and Dagger are wing-painting with me. And of course we still have a lot of practice to go through before it’s ready.”

“Of course.” Ardent looked up into Rain’s oversized golden eyes. “Show me?”

Rain lowered blue lashes. “You know it’s still very rough, and I haven’t practiced nearly enough, and it won’t look right without the others—”

Ardent rolled onto her side, resting her head on one hand, bringing Rain’s hand close to kiss her fingers. “Show me anyway?”

“…all right.” Rain rose above the bed on beating wings. “Give me some room?” Ardent stirred the aether with one hand, and her bedroom’s interior expanded fivefold.

Rain flew straight up, then shifted her wings larger, and swooped out in a spiral of geometric precision. Her wings trailed white light behind her, describing the exact arc of her path. After several passes, she terminated the spiral in a large, perfect circle. The white light in her wake was slowly decaying through the color spectrum, now purple and blue where she’d begun. With the circle complete, Rain twisted through a flurry of organic motions, crafting a stylized dragon in light. Then she darted across the spiral, cutting a new white line to a spot 60 degrees offset from her dragon. By now most of the spiral had decayed to half of a rainbow. Rain drew a sphynx, and flew across to finish the triangle set into the spiral-circle and make a winged horse. Most of the work was now in rainbow colors, the center of the spiral gone to red and then vanished into black. The mythical animals twisted and struggled at their points, as if trapped. As Rain finished with the pegasus, she glanced to the dragon. With exaggerated surprise and concern at its plight, she flew to it, grasped the fading yellow-orange line of the spiral, and tried in vain to pull it off. The dragon’s green jaws parted, and it breathed fire onto the line.

The remains of the spiral and circle exploded in fire. The mythical animals broke loose and spun away. Rain, in a feigned daze, plummeted away from the scene. Ardent scooted into position on the bed beneath her, and caught the fey in outstretched arms. Rain opened her eyes and giggled at Ardent’s smile. “So Vixen and Dagger do three more mythical creatures each, so it’s a nine-pointed star, and theirs are water and ground creatures. We don’t really like the ending yet, though…”    

“I love it,” Ardent said, sincerely. “It’s gorgeous. I am awed by how quickly you work. And that precision flying!”

Rain kicked her heels and looped her arms around Ardent’s neck as she squirmed upright in the satyress’s arms. “Did you really? Even the end?”

Ardent cradled her close to her chest. “Honey, especially the end.”    

“You’re terrible,” Rain said with a giggle, then kissed her.

Ardent closed her eyes, savoring that shy, tentative touch, as if Rain feared she might be rebuffed or evaded. Ardent slipped a hand behind her head and kissed her in return, stroking her soft blue curls, delighted by the feel of her, the silk of wings folded beneath her arm, the litheness of that small, perfectly-formed body against hers.

After a moment, Rain drew back, watching her with huge, luminous eyes. “I really did miss you,” she whispered. “I wish I could have gone with you.” She shifted positions, to straddle Ardent’s lap.

“You couldn’t give up the sky.” Ardent touched her unfolding wings. “I’m sorry I made you choose.” I’m sorry you chose the sky. I’m sorry I chose Try Again. I’m sorry we didn’t make it work, somehow.

“But you’re not making me choose now.” Rain kissed her again, and Ardent fell backwards, pulling Rain down on top of her. When the smaller fey drew back next, it was to frown at a messenger wisp. Rain flicked it away in annoyance, then made the gesture to stop any more messages from interrupting her. She looked down at Ardent. “Do you want to…?”

Ardent smiled, mirroring the stop-messengers gesture. “Oh yes.” Rain kissed her again, and for a few moments they did not talk at all. Then Ardent drew back to speak. “Rain, honey…I wasn’t really joking when I said I don’t think I’m gonna make it last. Staying in the Etherium. I don’t want to mislead you about that.”

Her former wife smiled, though her golden eyes glittered with emotion. She traced a finger over Ardent’s lips. “Do you think you can manage to stay through the night?”

“Yeah.” Ardent kissed her fingertips. “I think I can do that.”

“Then let’s make the most of it,” Rain whispered, and then they were kissing again.

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Comfortable as Ardent’s guest bed was, it was nonetheless far less comfortable than the satyress herself. Miro lay sleepless in it for some time, wondering if it was possible Ardent was attracted to him or if he was misinterpreting friendliness and a kindly tolerance. And even if his wild optimism was justified, was it worth it to complicate matters further, with his position already so precarious?

To distract himself from his problematic infatuation, Miro directed his thoughts to the problem he’d come to the Moon Etherium to solve. Alabaster and ivory, he remembered. I need to check the notebook for exactly which extractors need those. But Ardent might already be asleep. I shouldn’t disturb her for this. It’ll keep until morning. His mind drifted from that to his father, and then to the Sun Etherium.    


It had started twenty-five years ago, at one of Miro’s mother’s lavish breakfast gatherings.

The Sun Queen did everything attended by an array of sycophants, favorites, and courtiers. Miro had long ago lost her favor and was seldom subjected to a breakfast invitation, but he’d been summoned today. In theory, he did not have to go. In practice, it was less trouble to attend than not. He arrived exactly on time, sat at the far end of one of two lesser tables, and waited for the event to end so he could leave again.

But before that happened, the Sun Queen craned her neck about from her throne at the high table, and beckoned to him. “Come here, Mirohirokon. I’ve a question for you.”

Miro braced himself and approached with all the equanimity life as a Sun Host prince had drilled into him. He knelt to her, as was the queen’s due. “Your majesty.”

“Dear Tiqo—” Eletanene favored her youngest child with a smile that did not strike Miro as genuine “—has urged me to acquire a new garden for the Palace of the Sun, in that new plant-sculpture style. You have a friend who dabbles in that, don’t you, Mirohirokon?”

“I do, your majesty.” Miro’s closest and oldest friend, in fact. Miro had no desire to bring him to the Queen’s attention.

His mother wrinkled her golden brow in a frown at his reticience. “Well? What’s his name?”

Obviously, I should have concealed this friendship twenty-two years ago, when I formed it. At age six. It was not as if he could conceal it now. “Lilaqalilan, your majesty.”

Eletanene’s brow smoothed, returning her face to flawless perfection. She smiled, expression slight enough that it created no new wrinkles in her skin. “Lilaqalilan. I shall hire him, then.”

Next to their mother, Tiqo clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, thank you, Momma! You won’t regret this!”

“Your majesty is most considerate.” Miro regretted it already.


Lilan was excited about the commission, despite Miro’s misgivings. The pay was excellent, and while no one in the Etherium needed money, per se, luxuries like golems and custom-made art, particularly well-designed clothes, were much in demand.

Lilan had been plant-sculpting almost since the art form had been invented, just twenty years ago. It was an art practiced by making small alterations to a plant as it grew, and allowing nature a part in shaping the final work. Because it was such a new art, Lilan’s youth had been less of a hinderance in cultivating his reputation as an expert.

Ama, Miro’s favorite sister, shared his concern about their mother’s motives. “Tiqodomiqon’s been badgering her about plant-scultping for months. It’s all Tiqo talks about. She wants to learn it,” Ama told him one afternoon. They were just outside the Etherium, flying in bird form with one of Miro’s other childhood friends, Talo.

“So perhaps your mother wants to buy Tiqo the credit for designing a garden?” Talo said. “If Tiqo wants to bully Lilan into designing according to her specifications, Lilan’s not got the spine to stop her.”    

“Oh, I wish. Mom hates plant sculpting. She thinks it’s an undignified pursuit.” Ama canted the brown and beige wings of her peregrine’s body and turned in the air.

Talo and Miro dipped to follow her. “What if Tiqo changed her mind?” Talo asked.

“Her majesty is not known for changing her mind. Especially in response to badgering,” Miro said, grimly.

“What Miro said. The best possible option is that she’s decided to tolerate it for Tiqo’s sake.” Ama flapped her wings to level out.

“I hope so. For Lilan’s.” Miro did not ask what Ama considered the worst option. He could envision plenty of those himself.


The Sun Queen gave the new garden a good location, at the top of a Palace tower where it could get plenty of natural sunlight and even rain, if Lilan wanted. Lilan gave it a greenhouse shield, which could be attuned to be transparent or opaque, and to permit, filter, or block wind or rain. From the outside, he kept it screened by privacy wards, to preserve the mystery.

Not that Lilan minded if people watched his work in progress. Miro dropped by often to visit, sometimes helping and more often distracting his friend. Lilan’s typical form was of a fashionably handsome man: tall, with a muscular build, dark oversized eyes in an oval face, bronze-gold skin, and deep red hair. He had long, mobile ears that he canted up and down to reflect his mood. Miro had always liked Lilan’s soul, blues and greens full of kindness and gentle affection. He had an eagerness to please that made him good company, if unassertive. That was his soul’s greatest weakness. His fear of being disliked made him easy to manipulate. The occasional streaks of corruption in his soul were the result of times he’d done things he knew were wrong because someone else had talked him into them.

Tiqo did come to help with the garden, but not because the Sun Queen commanded Lilan to work with her. Nor did Lilan object: Tiqo accorded Lilan the deference due an elder fey and a master artisan, which he found endearing. The fey teen was more eager to learn the art than to impose her own vision over Lilan’s, and she was not so obtrusive as to be in the way. Tiqo had a healthy soul, especially for one of Eletanene’s children. She was full of enthusiasm and energy. While she’d been spoiled by too much deference and attention from fey courtiers, it didn’t mar her company most of the time.

The garden grew and blossomed into a mix of fanciful shapes, most organic, with some touches of mathematical regularity. A canopied tree that had each branch fork into two exactly half the original length, at a forty-five degree angle, and each of those fork again, and again. Tree “families” paired two trees of different breeds and surrounded the pairs with a brood of miniature trees that blended their traits. Bushes so dense with flowers that their leaves were obscured. Miro loved it without reservation, a little microcosm of everything that made life in the Etherium worthwhile. And since it was not yet open to the public, it contained none of the people who made life in the Etherium unpleasant.

“You can’t truly like it just because no one else comes here,” Lilan teased him one day. Lilan was working in one of the flower beds, adjusting the spells on the blooms so they’d be more natural and less rigidly controlled.

“Why not?” Miro lazed on his back in one of the garden benches. He batted away a messenger bird made of folded paper as it loomed close. “You should put up a wall that won’t let farspeaking work in here, too. That’d make it perfect.”

“Only for you, Miro. Besides, it’s not as ‘safe’ as you think. Your mother’s been in here a few times.”

“She has? What did she say?” Miro propped himself up to look at Lilan.

“Not much? I can’t tell if she likes it or not. But she hasn’t said anything bad, and she’s been quite understanding about it taking time.” Lilan had his ears canted down. “Princess Tiqo did turn into a mouse to hide from her one time, though. Apparently her majesty told Princess Tiqo at the start that she wasn’t supposed to be involved with the garden at all.” He glanced at Miro. “I told Tiqo I wouldn’t tell, but that she shouldn’t come any more. And now she’s showing up in the form a of a giant bear of a man and calling herself ‘Domi’. Domi claims to be a gardener the queen assigned if I need help. I dunno. Should I keep pretending I can’t tell it’s her?”

“I don’t know, either. I wish you hadn’t taken this job.”

Lilan laughed. “But you’re my biggest fan, Mirohi. You wouldn’t even have this garden without the commission.”

“You’d’ve made another garden. It’d still be great.”

“Not like this. I couldn’t have afforded all the assistants and special plants and tailoring on my own. I know you hate court intrigue, but how bad can it be? It’s not like I’m a courtier. I’m just a gardener. Seriously, though, if you think I should keep Domi out, I will. I don’t want to make trouble.”

Miro shook his head. “I don’t know what’ll make trouble, Lilan. I truly don’t.”


After several months, Lilan finished the garden, or at least pronounced it ready for public viewing. To Lilan’s gratification, the Sun Queen planned a large party with an exclusive guest list to celebrate its completion. The party would be the first time the garden would be seen by more than the handful who’d watched its development.

As the artisan responsible for the garden, Lilan received an invitation to the celebration. Miro was not invited, which did not entirely surprise him. Queen Eletanene wasted no love on him, after all. Still, after she’d made a point of asking his best friend to do the work, leaving him off the guest list seemed a little tasteless even by her standards. But at least Tiqo will be there; Lilan will have one friend already, and probably make more on the strength of his artistry.

On the afternoon of the party, Miro was working with his father in Jino’s laboratory. They were dispensing firebuds to various extractor prototypes when Miro received a message from Tiqo: “Miro, Miro, you have to come to the garden. Right now. Justice, please, it’s a disaster, please come.”

Miro summoned a farspeaker scroll to write out his reply. “What happened? I’m not invited, I can’t get in.” The scroll tore a square of itself off, folded itself into a paper bird, and winged away. Aloud, he told Jino, “I have to go, Dad, something’s happened with Lilan’s project.” He teleported to the Palace foyer, then shifted to a sparrow and flew through the corridors and up the stairwell towards the tower top.

Tiqo’s reply came “I know, I opened a gap in the wards on the southeast tower wall, by the peonies. Please, Miro, I can’t – just come.”    

Heart in his throat, Miro flew out one of the windows and winged his way to the southeast wall. He half-expected to see the garden in ruins, but it looked fine. Miro ducked down and wriggled through the gap in the wards, still in sparrow form. Tiqo was there, dressed in an elaborate jacket and full-skirted gown, but with tears on her cheeks. He landed on her outstretched hand. “What happened?” he asked again. From the interior, the garden still looked as splendid as ever. The party didn’t look like a disaster, either. Most of the attendees were clustered near their queen at the center of the garden, laughing uproariously.

“It’s Momma,” Tiqo whispered. “I tried to—” she gulped air “—make her stop, but I, I can’t, she’s horrible—”

Miro launched into the air and flew towards the group. Queen Eletanene was presiding over the crowd with Lilan frozen at her side, her hand gripped about his. “Now, tell us what inspired this group?” the Sun Queen cooed, her voice full of false sweetness. “Ooh, wait, I know. Pubic hair! Just that kind of thin tangly sparseness. And now I know why that little concealed stream is right there!”

The attendees swarmed about her laughed even harder. Lilan did not even try to respond. A few of the partygoers looked embarrassed or sorry for him, but even they had a hard time not smiling. One courtier offered a contribution: “All it needs is a few rabbits! To represent lice!”    

“An excellent suggestion! Do make note of that for the revisions, Lilaqalilan. Now, what’s next…”

Miro moved to Lilan’s side and shifted back to his fey shape as the Sun Queen continued her brutal dissection, mocking everything that was beautiful, elegant, and graceful in the design. She must have spent a lot of time working out the right quips, finding insults with just enough resonance to make the crowd smile, perfecting the delivery of her satire for maximum impact. Miro put an arm around Lilan’s shoulders and ignored everyone else. “Let go of her hand,” he told his friend. “We’re leaving.”

The crowd had stirred in surprise at Miro’s appearance, and his mother glanced over her shoulder to see the source. “But Mirohirokon, he can’t leave now. Why, we’re not even halfway through! There’s so much left of this abomination to explain!”

Miro ignored her. “It doesn’t matter that she’s queen, Lilan. She can’t make you stay. You don’t have to listen to this. Let’s go.” Lilan turned to him, oversized eyes brimmed with tears, features otherwise lifeless. He slid his hand from the queen’s grasp. Miro shifted himself into a bird and Lilan into a mouse to carry him away. The queen would make him pay for this, Miro knew – she’d find a way, just like she’d found this way. But at the time, it seemed more important to help his friend. As soon as they were outside of the Palace’s teleport blocks, Miro teleported them to his house.


Alone in Miro’s home near the edge of the Etherium, Lilan disintegrated in Miro’s arms. “I don’t understand. If she hated it, why didn’t she ever say so? She was there a dozen times. I’d’ve changed it. Or stopped. Or anything.”

Miro led him to a couch and pulled him down, holding him, with no idea what else to do. “It doesn’t have anything to do with your garden, Lilan.”

His friend shuddered, slumping against his chest. “You didn’t hear her, oh Love, she despised it, everyone did, they just laughed and laughed—”

“Shh. Shh.” Miro kissed the top of Lilan’s head, helpless to soothe him. “It doesn’t matter what she said. It doesn’t have anything to do with you, or your work. She’s making a point to someone else. Me, maybe. Tiqo, probably. To show Tiqo what she’d do if Tiqo took a hobby her majesty didn’t approve of. Your work is wonderful. Nothing she said can change that.”

Lilan shook his head. “I can’t, I can’t ever do this again. I think I’m going to be sick.” He conjured a basin and bent over to retch into it. Miro held back his hair until he finished, then cleaned his face with aether and magicked away the waste. “Justice, is this what she did to your dad? I never knew. I never knew how horrible people can be. Court’s not always like that. Is it? It can’t be.”

It can be. “It doesn’t matter, Lilan. It’ll be all right.”

But it wouldn’t.


Queen Eletanene paid Lilan the balance owed on the commission, of course. She would not have it said the crown did not pay its debts.

On every feyour, she’d had a little picture drawn and a quip written, in mockery of the garden.

Miro found the scrip two days later, scattered across the floor of Lilan’s foyer, spattered with blood. Lilan was dead in the bathtub, with his wrists slit. As Miro wept beside the tub, he wondered if this last twist of the knife had been because of him. Was this the price Eletanene had exacted because Miro had taken her prey away before she’d finished?

Later, at the funeral, his father had said, “It’s not your fault,” but Miro was never sure that was true.

The Sun Queen did not attend, nor did she express any hint of remorse or apology for her actions. She did not even offer condolences to her son.

Tiqo came to the funeral, in the giant male form Tiqo’d called “Domi” before, but this time identified as Tiqodomiqon. The garden party was the last time Miro ever saw Tiqo in a female form. After that, he was always male. If Eletanene’s performance had been intended to terrify Tiqo into obedience, it had the exact opposite effect. Tiqo studied the methods of justiciars, after that, although there was no chance the Sun Queen would ever make him the Justiciar. But Justice was his obsession now.

Miro’s too, in a different form.

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Ardent set Miro down, flicked away the leash, and fell face-first into her pillow nest. She gave an incoherent groan.

Miro sat at the edge of the pit for the sunken sofa, dangling his feet down the back rest. “Are you all right, my lady?”

She thrust out an arm with one thumb up, then struggled to roll onto her back. “Sorry, honey. I’m fine, just glad that’s over.” She lay her head back, frowned, and flicked the elaborate coil of braids back to her normal fluffy mass of loose hair. A short soft chiton replaced the long formal dress. “Wish I knew what was up with treating the Sun Host like a cross between a week-old pustulent corpse and a locust plague. How about you? Want your usual shape back?” She fumbled his homunculus out of a pocket in her chiton and proffered it.

“Yes, thank you.” He took the doll and sighed in relief at losing the extra inches and musculature, then chuckled. “I imagine most of your people can’t even tell the difference between the two shapes.”

She giggled, and shifted to her knees on the couch before him, leaning forward on one arm. She hooked a finger of her free hand around a lock of his once-again deep purple-blue hair. “Color difference here’s a little striking.”

He smiled. “Fair enough. But that aside…”

“Yeah, you’re right. I mean, I’ve seen you swap between them so the whole farmhand vs dancer build is pretty obvious to me. And I talk to mortals a lot so I’m used to telling people apart by slight differences. No offense. But most Moon Host aren’t.”

“Farmhand!” Miro laughed. “I should share that with the Sun Etherium. Perhaps that would give them pause in perpetuating the trend.”

Ardent cocked her head. “What else would you use all that muscle for?”

“It is the build of a Great Warrior,” Miro pronounced, with a self-important bluster on the final words that made Ardent giggle again. He smiled down at her, enjoying the rare chance to see her from a higher vantage. She had looked magnificent at the party, but he liked her better in her everyday clothes, when she looked comfortable and natural. Or perhaps he was drawn to her wide, open smile, with no secrets behind it. Or her warm, radiant soul. So much to admire.

She released the lock of hair and leaned sideways against the couch’s backrest, her legs curled next to her. “Lotta calls for Great Warriors in Sun Etherium, are there?”

“Of course! Almost every immersion, it seems,” he said, making her giggle again. The Sundering had ended the actual martial ambitions of the fey. Fey evasion made it virtually impossible to subdue other fey by force, and having the Etheriums drifting from one world to the next in an uncontrolled and often random fashion made conquering mortals rather pointless. If, indeed, there’d ever been a point to it at all. His memories of being Wind Rider in the immersion rose to the forefront of his mind: his joy in battle, the thrill of using aether as an irresistible weapon, of seeing enemies fall by the dozens under his blades. He – Wind Rider – had been so sure of his own rightness. Of course mortals should bow to fey might, of course fey should rule, of course rebellion must be punished. Anything else was a contravention of the natural order. In the immersion, he could not question it. Now that he was himself again, it was difficult to comprehend a fey mindset that cared how mortals ordered their own affairs.

Ardent’s hand on his knee recalled him to himself. “You doing all right there, honey?”

He tried a reassuring smile. “Yes. I think so.” Miro hesitated. “I don’t know.”

“Want a hug?” She held one arm to her side in invitation.

More than anything. He slid down from his perch on the backrest and fell forward with unseemly haste into her embrace. She enclosed him in powerful arms, pulling him into her lap and holding his head against her shoulder. He took a deep breath and relaxed into her. The contrast between the pillowy softness of her breasts and the strength and solidity of her arms and shoulders was both striking and delightful.    

Ardent carefully extricated his long hair so that it wouldn’t be trapped or pulled between them. “Anything you want to talk about? Is talking about your problems another thing Sun Host doesn’t do?”    

He chuckled, eyes half-closed. “It depends on the problem. And whether you can discuss it without looking weak and dominated by emotion.”

“So, anything that’s an actual problem, basically.”

Miro smiled again. “Just so.”

“Mph.” She rested her face against his hair. “I’m surprised they don’t tell you touching folks is a sign of weakness.”

“Oh, it is. I just don’t care. Dad never cared either. ‘I’m going to hug my son if he’s sad and if you don’t like it you can be impersonal and judgemental elsewhere.’” Miro waved a hand vaguely. “All of us least-favorite offspring tended to rebel by being inappropriately affectionate.”

Another snort. “No wonder you don’t love Sun Etherium. I like your dad. Jinokimijin handled that immersion mess so well.”

Miro grinned. “That’s him all over. He’s always been good at taking a bad situation in stride.” He shuddered. “And dying must have hurt, too, in full immersion.” Another shiver. “I’ve never been so relieved to escape an immersion before.”

Ardent stroked his back. “How bad was it? I didn’t realize how it’d affect you until it was too late – I should’ve—”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Miro said, sternly. “Although I do appreciate you taking Loreveroro’s role for me. Even I didn’t realize how the immersion would set in until it did. Still, Wind Rider’s part was disorienting, but enjoyable, up until almost the end. Not being able to save Loreveroro was shocking. As if I’d lived my whole life thinking everything was sure to work out as I wanted. The entire revelation of the betrayal came out of nowhere from my perspective.” A half-laugh. “Though obvious enough from my true one. Of course Moon Etherium would make one of the Sun prince victims of the Sundering into a villain.”

Ardent wrinkled her nose. “Oh. That’s right. You don’t actually know the whole of it.”

“Mm?” Miro lifted his head from her shoulder to look at her face.    

“The idea wasn’t to blame the Sundering on one Sun Host prince. It was supposed to be a whole top-down Sun Host plot. Loreveroro knew the whole time. I was just waiting for the best time to muck it up.”

“Oh.” Miro’s long ears canted down. “Oh. And if I’d had Loreveroro’s part, I would have gone along with it. I’d not have had a choice. Fallen wanted my father and me in those roles.”

“Yeah. And sure, everyone would know ‘that’s not how it really went’, but…still. Not sure what she’s getting out of stirring up this old feud. Must be something.” Ardent stroked his hair, lost in thought.    

Miro gave a slight nod, feeling dangerously comfortable. He tried to focus on the concerns at hand, but it was much more pleasant to focus on how good it felt to be cuddling Ardent. To be safe, with someone he trusted, and away from the uncertain and questionable desires of the Moon’s High Court. It’s too bad you couldn’t have made your deal with someone like Ardent, Dad. But if you had, then I wouldn’t’ve been able to get Ardent’s help to rescue you. None of this would’ve worked.

His eyes closed. After a minute, he opened them again. “Have I started to snore yet?” he asked.

“Not yet.” Ardent kissed the top of his head, and Miro wanted to purr. “Should I put you to bed?”

In your bed? Absolutely. Share it with me this time? Miro forced himself to sit upright. “I think I can manage. But I’d best go now, or I will be leaving you with that chore. These mysteries will still be there in the morning.” He took her hand and kissed it. “Good night, my lady.”

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After Fallen left Ardent’s reunion party, Jino went blank. She wanted to be forgettable, forgotten, irrelevant, unobtrusive. Fallen had made Jino brand herself on her first day in the Etherium, and it was not an experience Jino was eager to repeat. Especially since Fallen had waited a day before taking her out of the Etherium so she could speed the healing of it, and only then because it had been infected and looked bad. Fallen could not abide disordered things. Even healed, it still ached, and sliding down the streamers when dancing had made it worse. She’d thought that worth it at the time. Mirohirokon needed a victory. Maybe Jino’d needed one, too, just to prove that she was still capable of winning a skirmish. To remind herself that the war wasn’t over.

When she was alone with Fallen, though, it felt like the war was over.

Fallen had taken them to the garden of one of her palaces. This one was full of space-twisting magic that created impossible perspectives. There were trees that simultaneously grew both in front of and behind each other; flowers that blossomed from lily pads but appeared to be at the bottom of the pond, even while their muted fragrance hung in the air; leaves that reached for the sky and grew into the ground; mosaic scenes made of flowers that showed the same image no matter the vantage from which one viewed them.

Fallen paced along the steps of one circular path, dragging Jino behind her. It looked like Fallen was always walking down, and Jino felt like she was always walking upwards, but the scenery around them remained level throughout. Jino wished Fallen would stop and let her kneel at her feet like usual.

Instead, Fallen dispatched messages from a farspeaker in the shape of a crystal globe. She tapped one foot impatiently as she waited for responses, then twisted to yank on Jino’s collar. “You truly can screw up anything, can’t you?”

“Yes, mistress.” Jino made the tone of her little girl’s voice as dull and dutiful as she could.

“You can’t have resisted the cursed immersion. How could even you mess up a role so clearly laid out for you?” Fallen held the leash in her fist just a few inches short of the collar, pulling Jino’s much shorter form up to stand on her toes.

“I don’t know, mistress.”

Fallen slapped her, hard; Jino’s head rocked back as far as the tight leash would allow. “Don’t mock me, girl. Why did you lie about what your role was?”


“Stop that!” Fallen hit her again. Jino whimpered pitifully.

“I’m sorry, mistress!” Jino tried to cringe, which didn’t work well while standing on her toes and held up by the leash. “I was confused after the immersion. I thought what happened was real. Please don’t hurt me, mistress! I am bound to serve you and you alone.”

The gray fox-eared woman snorted. She put her fingertips to the side of Jino’s neck, and black needle-sharp claws sprouted from the tips. “Bah. The only thing you’re any good at is being hurt. Or perhaps making love to your son. That was a convincing kiss. Tell me, is incest common in the Sun Etherium or is it just you?”

Don’t use me to hurt Mirohiro, you vicious harpy. Jino twitched her neck against the claws, to make blood well from pinprick cuts. Voice dull, broken, hopeless, she said, “I live to serve.”

The white winged centaur from the party, the one who’d led the immersion, teleported into the garden beside them. Fallen dropped Jino to turn her attention to the centaur. “Reflections on Water. Were my instructions not clear enough? Why was Ardent Sojourner given Loreveroro’s part?”

Jino’d rather been wondering that one herself. Since Fallen had stopped pacing and released her tight grip on the leash, Jino sank to her knees at the fox-eared woman’s feet. Reflections bowed deeply to her. “My apologies, Lady Shadow of Fallen Scent. Lady Ardent refused to allow her servant Mirohirokon to be assigned the part and insisted she take it herself.”

Insisted? By Duty, you imbecile, Loreveroro’s part needed to be done properly! If that cow wouldn’t let Mirohirokon take it, then it should’ve followed the script as part of the glamour. How stupid are you?”

Reflections hunched his shoulders. “A thousand apologies, my lady. Ophidion Memory didn’t realize how important this role was to the arc, and since the party was in Lady Ardent’s honor, she thought—”

“Oh, so this is Ophidion Memory’s fault, is it?”

“She was the one assigning parts for them—”

Fallen rested the hand holding Jino’s leash against her hip and leaned back, black eyes narrowed and a small, cruel smile on her dark lips. “Very well. Then you shall see Ophidion Memory punished for it.”

The centaur swallowed, his shoulders tensing. “I’ll reprimand her, my lady.”

“Reprimand? A mere reprimand? For ruining the entire immersion for everyone?”

“Lady Shadow – everyone enjoyed it, it wasn’t—”

Don’t contradict me. You’ll see her blacklisted from all creative positions. Permanently.”

Reflections on Water raised his torso from his bow at last, shocked. “But that – that’s much too extreme—”

“Is it? Well. We can give her a choice, then.” Fallen smirked. She conjured a branding iron into her hand, with the inverted characters for “Worthless Failure” on it. “She can brand herself, and let the scar heal naturally. Or give up any hope of ever designing an immersion role again. Permanently.” Fallen created a fire pit in the middle of the path. “Send for her.”

Reflections looked as appalled as Jino felt. “Please, this can’t be the only—”

“Do you want to accept Ophidion Memory’s punishment for her, then?” Fallen snapped. She thrust the branding iron’s mark into the glowing coals of the fire pit. “Are you volunteering?”

The artist swallowed. With shaking fingers, he dispatched the message.

“You will administer the punishment, Reflections,” Fallen ordered while they waited. This time, the centaur did not argue.

An uncomfortable minute trickled past. The branding iron sizzled in the firepit, an unnecessary bit of drama. No, Jino thought, correcting herself. It’s necessary for Fallen’s purposes. This is all about dramatic effect. Jino’s arm ached in sympathy. She hoped Ophidion Memory chose blacklisting.

The aether near Reflections uncoiled at last, and a woman with a snake’s body instead of legs curled out of it. “Hello, my lord, what’s the matter?” she asked. Her black and red tail shifted nervously, and she glanced at Fallen and Jino.

“You…ruined tonight’s immersion.” The white winged centaur kept his eyes on Ophidion Memory, but sweat sheened on his forehead.    

She blinked. “What? But it went fine, everyone was—”

“It did not go fine. Loreveroro’s part was too far off-script. Ardent Sojourner should not have been permitted to take it.”

“But it was her party! We went over this already—”

“And you didn’t get it the last time, so we’re going over it again,” Reflections snarled. He stopped, swallowed, glanced at Fallen and the brand, then shook his head. “No. We’re not going over it again. I’m removing you from Through the Glass.”

“What?” The naga recoiled, curling her tail around herself protectively. “You can’t do that!”

“Yes, I can. This is my creative group, and I decide who does and doesn’t belong. And you’re out. In fact, I’ll tell everyone who composes immersions to steer clear of you, Memory. I suggest you find a new pastime.”

“No! No, please, Reflections, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, please. Immersions are my whole life. You can’t – please don’t do this.” She folded her hands together, cowering before him.

“I can’t rely on you,” Reflections said, harshly.

“You can! Please, there has to be a way I can prove myself!”

Fallen made a little noise in the back of her throat, and the centaur flinched. Slowly, he said, “You…you can…brand yourself.”

Ophidion Memory stared at him, in blank incomprehension.

Reflections pointed a shaking finger to the branding iron. “With that. It’s the only…acceptable punishment.”

Fallen twisted her gray features, irritated. But when she spoke, her voice was even, almost gentle in her disappointment. “Your Queen was counting on this immersion to be perfect, Ophidion Memory. Your ill-considered actions have done great damage to her plans. But pain is a great teacher. Perhaps through that, you will learn to do better in the future.”

The naga hesitated. She picked up the branding iron, shuddered at the glowing, inverted characters. “Isn’t there anything else I can do?” she pleaded, looking from Fallen to Reflections.

“No,” Reflections whispered.

“You can put it somewhere no one will see it but you,” Fallen offered. “Stomach, perhaps. But it must heal naturally. To reinforce the lesson.”

Don’t do it, Jino thought. She understood the point to this tableaux now. It was about control. Getting the fey to do this particular thing didn’t matter. What mattered was making them accustomed to doing what Fallen wanted, no matter how little they wanted it. Fallen would make this cruelty feel like a mercy. She wasn’t using up her influence to compel them: she was expanding it. Both Reflections and Memory would feel more indebted to her after this. It’s not worth it, Jino thought at Memory. Get another hobby. Fallen’s time will pass.

Memory lifted her tunic, revealing skin above her scaled tail, and took the branding iron in aether to hold before her. She had to do it to herself; she’d be invulnerable to anyone else’s attack on her.

“Do it fast, if you’re going to do it,” Reflections said, his voice hollow.

“Don’t do it,” Jino said, and didn’t realize she’d spoken aloud until everyone turned to look at her in surprise. Oops. She spoke quickly; no point in stopping now. “They can’t make you hurt yourself. You’re free. They don’t own you, or the concept of immersions. You don’t have to do this, Lady Ophidion Memory.”

Fallen scowled at her. Jino expected her to hit her, but Fallen shrugged instead. “It’s up to you, Memory,” she said, lightly. “Some prefer disgrace to redemption. Perhaps you’d rather end up like Jiji, here.”

Memory braced herself. She thrust the brand into her stomach, and screamed at the raw agony of it. Jino curled around her own arm reflexively. She didn’t mean to whimper in sympathy but it was impossible not to remember the horror of it, the way the pain of the burn went on and on, long after the iron was removed. She heard the clatter as Memory dropped the branding iron, smelled burning flesh in the air. Jino struggled not to vomit.

Memory shuddered, clutched at her stomach, and let go at once. “Ahhh Justice it hurts, it still hurts, I have to—” she made a little helpless gesture, gathering aether and releasing it.

“Don’t heal it.” Reflections knelt beside her, took her head in his arms to console her. “It’ll be all right. It’ll mend. Just let it be.”

Tears ran down the naga’s dark cheeks. “Aggh, it’s awful, I don’t think we get this kind of pain right in an immersion. It’s so much worse than being cut,” Memory babbled. Reflections almost smiled at that. “Can I cool it, at least? What do you do for a burn, I don’t even know, why won’t it stop hurting? Please, please, just heal it, please.”    

Reflections glanced to Fallen, helpless, pleading. The gray woman stepped closer, and stroked Memory’s hair. “There, now. Have you learned your lesson already?”

“Yes, yes, please, my lady, I won’t ever mess up again, just—”

“Shh. All right. I think we can waive the rest, then, Reflections?”

Yes,” he growled.

Fallen healed the injury for Memory, and she curled up in relief, still crying. “There, now. Not even a scar,” she said, soothingly. “All better. You won’t ever disappoint us again, now, will you, Ophidian Memory?”

She shook her head, babbling her thanks. Part of Jino had to admire the way Fallen had manipulated her into being grateful for a rescue from Fallen’s own punishment. Jino wondered what she’d see now, if she’d had her son’s soulsight. You were free. But you aren’t any more, are you?

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The immersion dissolved around her as her character in it died, and Ardent woke to the world of the glass ship. She was resting on a cushion of air, after her character had toppled over. Miro was suspended in the air beside her, still caught up in the immersion.

Jinokimijin was lying back against aether, one slim hand looped where the sword had impaled her chest, eyes staring towards the spars and streamers of the glass ship’s rigging. Ardent moved over to touch her shoulder. “You all right there, sweetie?”

The girl started, blinking. “Oh! Oh.” She patted her bustier, the chains about her pale-golden wrist clinking, then cupped her breasts with a puzzled expression. Jinokimijin frowned for a moment, then nodded at last. “Right! Yes, I’m fine. I should…”

All around them, the fey woke from the immersion as it ended and they returned to normal interaction with the world. Miro staggered and blinked, as his eyes shifted to focus on the forms in this world again. “No!” he said, in sudden horrified realization. He clapped a hand over his mouth, staring from one to the other.

“We’re fine, sugar,” Ardent told him, gently. “It’s just an immersion.”

“But – you—”

“It was a game.” Jinokimijin shifted to sit, propped on one arm. Her eyes met her son’s, and her lips twitched. “Nothing to do with reality.” Her lips twitched again, and then she dissolved into laughter.    

“Nothing at all,” Miro said, with evident relief, and then he was laughing as well. Ardent wasn’t sure exactly what the joke was, but she grinned anyway, and then giggled, and laughed at the absurdity of it all, of a Sun prince playing a Moon prince killing a Sun prince who was played by his ex-prince father. Reflections on Water flew over to them, the centaur’s hooves pacing in the air as he glided on white wings.

“What’s so funny?” Fallen demanded. Ardent wondered who she’d been playing. Not Storm Driven: the Moon princess had been Skein, Ardent was sure.

“Did you enjoy the immersion?” Reflections asked at almost the same time, looking at Ardent.

Before Ardent could answer, Jinokimijin bounced to her feet and proclaimed, “I loved it! That was fantastic! I’ve never been so excited to get killed in one of these! No hard feelings about stabbing you, I hope, my lady?”

Ardent had managed to stifle most of her laughter, but that made her giggle again. “It’s fine. Sorry about ruining your evil plot.”

“Oh, not at all! Your betrayal of my betrayal was so delightfully dramatic! And I’ve never gotten to play anyone so irredeemably evil before! Destroying two Etheriums so I could take the phoenix rose for myself! Quite a villain you crafted for me, Lord Reflections.”

“Er…thank you…” The centaur frowned, glancing between them.    

“But a villain is best when they’re stopped by the brave heroes.” Jinokimijin gazed fondly at her son and Ardent, who were still sitting. Miro had finally managed to stop laughing, but his lips twitched again at this. “Though I am just a tiny bit disappointed that we didn’t get to see the Sundering you no doubt had planned for us, Lord Reflections. I imagine it must be spectacular!”

The white centaur rubbed the back of his neck, beneath his mane of pale curly hair. “We did put a lot of work into it…”

“Pity. But there’s always the next performance!”

“Indeed.” The Queen came over, waving them up as they scrambled to kneel. “We can’t always have Ardent around to save the day. It’s a pity you weren’t there in the year 800 to stop the Sundering, old friend.”

“Sorry bout that, your majesty. I’m old, but not that old.”

The queen smiled. All around them, guests were talking about the immersion and their pieces of the story. From the sounds of it, there were a hundred other stories unfolding during the same event. None of them were quite so grand and climactic as Ardent’s reveal, but no one had spent their time waiting to see what the royals would do next. The general mood of the assembly was good, although Jinokimijin wasn’t the only one disappointed to have missed the recreation of the Sundering. Ardent was sure that Fallen was upset, though the fox-tailed gray fey worked to conceal it. She thought Skein was displeased, too, beneath her surface smile. But Skein made no unkind remarks about the immersion or her performance.

Ardent was aware that the immersion would have gone very differently if she hadn’t insisted on swapping roles with Miro. Miro would have been fully immersed in the role of Loreveroro, and would not have thought to break character to protect the Moon Etherium as Ardent had.

Everyone knew that immersions were not histories, nor records of events as they actually happened. But immersions were effective at making participants feel as if an event were real and true. So it’s another ploy to discredit the Sun Etherium, using our own Sun Host fey to enhance its authenticity. Is this Skein’s plot, or Fallen’s? Why do they care what we think of the Sun Host? Ardent filed the thought away for further investigation later. At this point, it was late enough that she could collect her prince and take her leave without disrespect to her illustrious hostess. Further, she was genuinely tired enough to justify that course, so she did.

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Whenever an immersion participant was bored, time would blur for them as they advanced to the next thing they found interesting. In a big immersion like this one, that meant the whole spell made lots of adjustments in the perceptual time of each participant. It sped some participants up and slowed others down based on their various roles, so that no one had to wait on the others.

After what Ardent could only regard as the Evil Plot Revealed scene, time blurred forward. They returned to the Moon Etherium. The Moon Host mood was jubilant, buoyed by their victory. They were eager to celebrate the alliance of Sun and Moon, and looked forward to the prospect of new worlds to conquer. Ardent was sure most of the participants weren’t so immersed that they’d forgotten how this story ended. But no one Lorerevovo spoke with wanted to discuss the possibility that something might go wrong with the ritual. Perhaps they didn’t want to betray their roles, or perhaps they hoped the creators would give them a chance to re-write history with a new, happier ending.

Ardent doubted that was the plan, especially given that the creators had already re-written history in this scenario.

But her faction was keeping a close eye on Lorerevovo, so she continued to play his part and did nothing overt.

In the last hours before they entered the Etherium, she talked to Imilasisi about how they were to ‘poison the channel’. “Through a tincture of rowanwood.” That was a mythical drug that was supposed to drain a fey of all aether. As far as Ardent knew, it didn’t exist. “It won’t affect us personally, since the Moon Etherium will already have drained us of all aether. I’ll give you your dose at the feast before the channeling begins.”

The feast awaited them at the Palace of the Moon as soon as they returned. It was a lavish affair that the creators had taken considerable pains to render accurately in both food and entertainment. Ardent found the care taken in those details depressing in contrast to the liberties taken with everything of consequence about this story.

During the second course, Prince Imilasisi leaned over to murmur in Loreveroro’s ear. “I trust you’re enjoying our first taste of the Moon Etherium.” He waved a hand vaguely over Ardent’s soup, and she saw droplets splash into it from his hand. She laughed and gave him a brotherly slap on the shoulder that knocked his arm forward. He dropped the vial in his hand, bit back a curse, and dove after it as it rolled on the table. Loreveroro stood quickly and slapped a hand down over Imilasisi’s where it covered the vial.

“Traitor!” Loreveroro shouted, as all eyes turned to watch the commotion. “Fey of the Moon Host, we are betrayed! My brother’s foul ambition has led him to seek the destruction of both our Etheriums, so that he may have the phoenix rose’s power to himself alone! He has poisoned my food and his own with a tincture of rowanwood, such that when you attempt to channel from us to feed tonight’s ritual, it will cause a resonance that will devastate Sun and Moon alike.”

Imilasisi stared at his brother. “Have you gone mad? It – it’s not true!” he protested to the assembly. “It’s his plot! To ruin the day’s celebrations and the alliance between our peoples!”

“The only thing I am trying to ruin is your plot!” Loreveroro lifted his brother’s hand, revealing the vial. “That is where he stored the tincture. Test it, if you don’t believe me. But trust this: channel from us for this rite, and we will all suffer the consequences.”

“It’s not mine!” Imilasisi objected.

“I haven’t touched it. A simple information spell will verify that. Besides, I don’t care which one of us they think the villain; your plan is finished either way.” Ardent made her prince’s face grin smugly at him.

Imilasisi stood as well, his right hand still imprisoned in her left. “I don’t know what you intend to gain from this betrayal, brother – but you won’t—”

“No!” Prince Wind Rider flew across the table, a shining steel blade in his hand. Ardent didn’t realize until he was upon them why he’d screamed. She hadn’t even seen the knife in Imilasisi’s left hand. In the Moon Etherium, Prince Loreveroro had no fey evasion with which to avoid his strike, nor fey invulnerability to survive it. She felt a sudden pain in her abdomen, and looked down to see blood spilling over Imilasisi’s hand and the knife hilt in it. Then, an instant too late, Wind Rider impaled Imilasisi through his chest.

The Sun Host prince slumped backwards into his chair, dead, dragging the knife blade with him. Loreveroro staggered. “No,” Wind Rider said again, his expression stupefied by horror and disbelief. He summoned aether, pressed it into the wound in an effort to staunch the bleeding.

Oh, sugar, that’s not how healing magic works, Ardent thought. Even if you could heal a Sun Host fey in the Moon Etherium, which you can’t. Loreveroro reached out to pat Wind Rider’s hand. “It’s all right. You stopped him. The Etheriums are safe. That’s what matters.”    

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It wasn’t the most inaccurate historical Ardent had participated in; she had to give it that much. The rules of war the fey had fought under during the battle were reasonably accurate to the period. Landara had rebelled against fey rule, and that rebellion had been put down by joint effort of the Sun and Moon Etheriums. Although Landara hadn’t captured the phoenix rose. It had been stolen and given to them by Water Crossing, a fey who sympathized with the humans and who’d been one of the fey explorers who’d discovered it. Ardent wasn’t sure why they’d omitted that fey’s role thus far. She’d assumed Water Crossing’s betrayal was the one alluded to in the title. Maybe they’re saving her so they can pin the Sundering on her? That’d be a serious revision of reality.

The re-taking of the phoenix rose was likewise severely ahistorical; Water Crossing and the Landaran general had used it to dig into the earth, literally, and throw up makeshift fortifications that the fey armies had spent weeks prying apart. The phoenix rose had effectively given the enemy a source of their own aether in an area far from anywhere the fey could get aether. Resupply had been nightmarish. Ardent wasn’t surprised the creators had opted against re-creating that scenario: it would have been much less fun than leaping about a battlefield, annihilating their foes.

In the immersion, the fey attack had devastated the Landaran army: thousands of corpses littered the field. The fey companies allowed thousands more to flee. The fey had been bloodthirsty during the combat, but their primary goals in this scenario were the recovery of the phoenix rose and the captives. Most participants didn’t care about maximizing their kills, at least not against panicked, running mortals.    

The combined fey hosts had lost five fey, all to attacks aided by the phoenix rose.

That ratio of fallen mortals and fey was true to history. Even four hundred and fifty years ago, when the use of aether was far less refined and fey mastery of invulnerability and evasion had been less complete, aether made the Etherium armies all but invincible against humans.    

Ardent was worried about Miro; she hadn’t realized that his lack of ordinary fey abilities would mean he’d experience the immersion fully. Somehow she’d thought the ability to tailor one’s experience was part of the spell, not part of the fey response to it. She should have known better; making immersion work when it had first been attempted thirty years ago had relied on convincing fey participants to allow a mind-altering glamour to affect them at all. The spells were designed with great transparency to fey senses, so that one could discern both the full extent and short duration of the alterations. But a mortal would have no resistance to it, and neither would a Sun Host fey in Moon Etherium. I knew I should have left him in my suite. Well, Wind Rider seems to be having a good time of it so far, and he’s a hero of the Moon Etherium who survived the Sundering, so it should be a good role. Which was more than she could say for her own part as Prince Loreveroro.

The fey forces rescued the imprisoned fey handily, in immersion-blurred time. Water Crossing wasn’t among them, and Ardent’s immersion-provided memories of Loreveroro didn’t mention her. The captives were all Sun Host members instead of a mixed party. General Qihitinene took possession of them. The Sun and Moon companies parted ways to set up their own camps. The plan was to rest for what was left of the night and part of the day.

But before they slept, General Qihitinene and the Sun princes debriefed the rescued fey. Their leader, Teralele, began with an apology. “I am sorry, my lord, your highnesses. We didn’t know how else to keep the phoenix rose out of Moon Etherium hands. We’d hoped the Landaran gambit would buy more time.”

The general glowered. “At least you got your Moon Etherium cohorts killed by them. That’s something. I wish you hadn’t let Wind Rider take the phoenix rose, your highness,” he said to Prince Imilasisi.    

Imilasisi shrugged. “You did fine, Teralele. And general, they think we’re allies. We helped them save the day. Don’t fuss so; everything is going exactly according to my father’s plan. We’re not going to squander this opportunity on something so paltry as merely making the phoenix rose our own. Oh no. We are going to use this opportunity to destroy the Moon Etherium.”

Ardent boggled at the scene. She reviewed her immersion-memories and…yes. Loreveroro believed that the Sun Etherium planned to destroy the Moon Etherium by tricking them into Sundering themselves. This has nothing to do with any version of actual history. The Sundering wasn’t some botched plot to destroy the Moon Etherium. It was a cataclysm of shared hubris.

Imilasisi was continuing. “Teralele, you and your people will go with whatever representatives the Moon royals choose to the site of the world-portal. The general, my brother, and I will return with the Moon Host companies to their Etherium for the celebration. Our official goal remains as it always has been: consume the phoenix rose in opening the World Gate to give us new human worlds to conquer, and at the same time open a permanent portal between each Etherium and the World Gate. But Loreveroro and I will taint the channel the Moon casters open with us. While the World Gate and the portal to it from Sun Etherium open, the Moon Etherium’s part of the spell will twist upon itself. It will be destroyed in a cataclysm of misfired energies the likes of which this world has never seen before, nor will again.”

What. The Loreveroro-role nudged at Ardent’s mind, urging to endorse this absurd plan of a one-dimensional villain. That was her in-character response. But she was only lightly immersed in the role; she could refuse it if she chose. But Jinokimijin is playing Imilasisi, and as fully-immersed as Miro is. He doesn’t have a choice. And odds are the other villains here with me are played by the presenters, or just glamours. I’m not going to be able to reason my way out of this. And if I get Loreveroro killed here in this tent, General Qihitinene can replace his role in that ridiculous plot.

Teralele looked worried. “But your highnesses! How will you escape this cataclysm?”

“It’s a magical backlash. It will only affect the Moon Host and their Etherium. As Sun Host, we will be perfectly safe. Its collapse may not finish off the Moon Host affiliates at the World Gate, however; we’ll need you to take care of them.”

Ardent was pretty sure that was complete nonsense, just like the rest of this immersion scene. She sighed inwardly. But I suppose I’d better play along for now. Loreveroro smiled. “And even if we weren’t, our lives would be a small price to pay to rid the Sun of the blight of the Moon Etherium forever.”

“Just so.” Imilasisi raised his glass. “Just so.”

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Prince Wind Rider stood at the head of two companies of fey cavalry and looked down upon the rebellious human armies of Landara. Landara’s human leader, King Aolotillo, thought he could use the phoenix rose to win independence from the Moon Etherium. Prince Wind Rider and his sister, the Crown Princess Storm Driven, were here to prove them wrong.

They had an ally in this matter. The Sun Etherium had sent a company of fey cavalry of their own, led by General Qihitinene and including two of their princes, Loreveroro and Imilasisi. All three companies were under strict orders of aether conservation. Even here and now, four hundred miles from the Moon Etherium and over twelve hundred from Sun Etherium, the fey soldiers brimmed with aether. They were prepared for this conflict.

Wind Rider and Storm Driven had reined in at the top of a slope to look down at the Landaran forces for themselves: battalion after battalion of human men. The Landaran army had captured a group of fey researchers at Bacalat and taken the phoenix rose from them, and were on their way to their fortress at Timodalat. There were at least ten thousand human soldiers in the plains below.

The Moon Etherium’s two companies totaled a hundred and ninety riders. Sun Etherium brought another hundred and ten.

Three hundred fey against ten thousand soldiers. “How do you like our odds, sister?” Wind Rider asked.

“It hardly seems fair,” she answered, smiling. “Do you think we should wait for the infantry to catch up?” They had another four companies of unmounted men on the way from the Moon Etherium, but they were most likely seven days behind at unassisted speed.

“Only if we want them to burn aether to do so. Perhaps not even then. I don’t want the bother of digging these rats out of some rock-walled den. Let’s take them here, in the open,” Wind Rider replied. His fey warhorse, Lightning, whickered and pawed the ground to signal equal willingness. Both Lightning and his sister’s horse, Thunder, had been affiliated with the Moon Etherium by their father, giving the animals fey powers that made them harder to control but devastating in battle. The horses could not work true spells, but they’d burn aether instinctively to improve their natural abilities.

The princess turned at the sound of hoofbeats. The two sun princes and their general rode up to assess the situation with them. “General Qihitinene. My brother and I think it wise to strike now, before they make the fortress. What counsel you?”

The general studied the enemy battalions before them, and grunted. “Better now than when they’ve learned more of the phoenix rose. This will be no inconsequential battle against mere humans, your highnesses. Don’t underestimate what they can do with that artifact.”    

The royals nodded. They’d all been briefed on the phoenix rose’s known capabilities. Wind Rider felt aether seethe under his skin and couldn’t restrain a smile. Yes, the humans had a potent artifact in their midst. But they were still humans. Giving a babe raw power would make the infant dangerous, sure, but hardly a match for a trained fey warrior. They’d grown up in the aether; using the arcane arts was as natural as breathing. The five discussed tactics, positioning, and where to employ their own enchantments to best effect. They opted to strike after nightfall; dark-sight consumed little aether, and the humans would be much worse impaired by the lack of light. Wind Rider shifted in the saddle of his horse, aether singing to him of battle and blood. He looked forward to the fight, to the chance to show these insolent, upstart humans the folly of resistance against fey might.

Prince Loreveroro kept directing odd glances his way. Perhaps he harbored some sympathy for the humanfolk; the fey of the Sun Etherium did not seem to embrace aether as the Moon did. Apart from the aether in their bodies and their long ears, they might have been human themselves. By contrast, Storm Driven had plated her face with scales against attackers and had retractable claws in her fingers. The trueshift that made Storm Driven’s scales possible without the continual use of aether was too extreme for Wind Rider’s tastes, but even so he had long curving horns and a prehensile tail to proclaim his fey nature.

“We won’t surprise them,” Loreveroro said. “We haven’t burned aether on concealment, and they’ve got scouts of their own. They’ll know we’re here.”

“They won’t know when we’ll strike. And they’re human. Their numbers will give them false confidence. They probably expect us to wait for reinforcements. Come, let us brief the companies on the plan.” Storm Driven wheeled her mount around and rode down to where they’d left the troops.

Loreveroro warned that the humans might choose to strike first. Wind Rider felt sure they wouldn’t; they’d hope to make their fortress before the fey were reinforced.

The rest of the afternoon passed in what felt like moments, as they shadowed the Landaran army. Soon, the sun closed on the horizon and the humans made camp. The Landarans knew where the fey companies were. They placed their camp over a mile from the ridgeline and prepared it to defend against a night attack. The fey waited for full dark, then sent a pair of fey in owl shapes to scout the enemy’s defenses, locate the phoenix rose, and find the Landaran’s fey prisoners. Once they had that information, they finalized their battle plans and attacked.

Glamour consumed very little aether, so they crafted illusions freely. The fey of the cavalry companies spread out and used illusory riders to triple their numbers. In the moonlit night, a host of swift-moving shadows to the rear of the cavalry, accompanied by the sound of twanging bowstrings and the hiss of arrows, made it seem that ranks of archers supported their assault. The scent of sweat and horses, previously muted by glamour for their own comfort, was now enhanced to add verisimilitude. Four fey scouts in avian shapes raised shadow armies on the horizons to the north and the east. Meanwhile the true force boiled down from the ridgeline to the southwest.

The Landaran commander was no fool; Wind Rider gave him that. He ordered his men to stand their ground, and sent only a few scouts to the north and east to verify the glamours there were indeed illusions. A shield wall of pike-wielding infantry waited behind a line of sharpened stakes set in the ground. The human cavalry ranged behind the infantry. As they approached, Storm Driven signaled a dozen fey to send aether-guided arrows into enemy soldiers to give credence to the lie of their ranged support. The arrows exploded in flame where they struck: before they’d reached the stake line, a score of Landarans had already fallen. Their commander barked an order, and the human cavalry moved out, five hundred horses racing to both left and right in an attempt to flank the fey host. They sought to get behind the fey and take out the nonexistent archers.

Storm Driven swept one arm before her, and a scythe of aether followed her gesture over the line of sharpened stakes. Hardwood wilted like blades of grass beneath her power. The fey cavalry lowered their lances and charged the shield wall. The human infantry braced for the impact.

Four yards from the shield wall, the fey folk rippled and shifted, from the silhouettes of men into monsters, no two alike. They grew scales and horns, extra arms, the tails of scorpions and striking serpents, elongated necks, dragon heads. To human eyes, their mounts changed with them, to half-dragon steeds, demon cats, griffons, nightmares. Human captains and lieutenants shouted encouragements to quailing soldiers. They’d known this would happen. But it is one thing to know you will fight monsters, and another thing entirely to fight them.    

Aether-directed lance points pierced through shields and armor to bite into mortal flesh. Fey-trained warhorses leaped into the air and soared over the line, aether-borne. The lines beyond had their pikes raised and soldiers crouched under shields. Monstrous fey knights dropped their spent lances and drew swords as horse hooves plunged into the mass of their enemies. Wind Rider burned aether to push the points aside as his horse came down atop a roof of shields; Storm Driven’s trick with the line of stakes cost much more aether on metal-bound weapons in sapient hands. In battle, aether was life. His fey stallion used its own supply of aether to steady them. The animal did not stumble even as their weight bore down on shields and human flesh, as partly-crushed men struggled to get out from under them.    

The battle lines of the human soldiers crumbled around them as fey swords and monstrous appendages plunged into their enemies. Aether turned aside the short swords and pike blades of their enemies, except for the blows that went into glamour-illusions and did the latter no harm. Lightning found ground to stand upon and reared to lash out with hooves at the humans. Wind Rider balanced in the saddle, turning the stallion in a tight circle and striking down any soldier close enough to hit. All was chaos around them. The Sun warriors conjured aether into lightning to blast at human lieutenants and standard-bearers. Some of the Moon fey sent more arrows that exploded in fire into the more distant ranks. Wind Rider was still conserving aether until they reached the phoenix rose. He hooked throwing stars from his steed’s harness and sent them with aether-precision into the eyes and throats of the enemy. Now that the battle line had broken and the mortals were in a disorderly retreat, he sought to clear a path to the phoenix rose. A beacon of glamour went up ahead and to the right; one of the fey had eyes on the phoenix rose and was highlighting it for the rest of the group.

A Sun warrior sent a fork of lightning towards it. Its wielder deflected the bolt towards a fey knight. Wind Rider was shocked to see the fey sent flying from his horse, body blackened and smoking. Why didn’t he evade? Fey evasion requires so little aether; surely he can’t have been so bereft? Is that the power of the phoenix rose?

Under Lightning’s hooves, the ground trembled and shook, then split. Wind Rider urged the fey stallion into an aether-assisted leap away from the fault lines. Lava rose through the cracks, a heat shimmer distorting the air. Wind Rider charged his mount for the knot of humans guarding their artifact. The wielder had conjured a protective ward over himself, the bird, and his defensive force. It was throwing back the fey charging it, in a kind of bubble that the humans could strike out from but that even aether-driven attacks did not pierce.    

As Wind Rider neared the bubble, he spent aether recklessly. He wrapped himself in a ward of his own and cast an earthswim spell as he dove from his steed. The ground roiled around him as he entered it, and the lava-heat beat against his ward but did not penetrate it. He swam forward until he judged himself underneath the human’s ward, and then up. As he’d guessed, the bubble did not protect them from below. The human soldiers barely had time to be surprised as he jumped out of the ground and among them, a fey demon-warrior with naked steel in both hands. Wind Rider ripped through the guardians in an aether-fueled whirlwind of steel. They dealt Wind Rider a few cuts in return, as he was unwilling to give ground and evade completely. The phoenix-wielder cradled his caged bird to his chest, struggling to adjust his spell into a personal ward. He managed to do so just before Wind Rider would have disemboweled him.

But by that time, the rest of the fey forces had swarmed upon the human. Storm Driven pummeled at his ward with spell and steel from one side while the Sun general took the opposite. One of the Sun princes stabbed at him from behind; the last worked spells to peel apart the layers of his ward. More and more fey moved into position and fueled the efforts to undo the ward. Potent as the phoenix rose was, its inexperienced wielder could not withstand the combined assault. He fell to Storm Driven’s blade. Wind Rider dropped his sword to catch the phoenix rose’s cage, a moment before General Qihitinene did. They held the cage together for a moment, eyes locked. Inside the cage, the bird made a querulous coo. It was a pretty animal, the feathers of its folded wings and body reminiscent of the petals of a red rose, its head iridescent green like the stem of a bud. Prince Imilasisi made a slight gesture, and the general yielded it to Wind Rider. “Congratulations, your highnesses,” he said. “Our prize is won, for the twin Etheriums.”

“For the twin Etheriums!” Triumphant, Wind Rider lifted the cage over his head. A cheer went up from among the fey host, clashing steel against steel for applause.

“Don’t stop to celebrate yet.” Prince Loreveroro strode back to his horse and swung up. “We still need to free our captive people.”

Wind Rider grinned anyway. They’d won the phoenix rose. The rest of the army would be only clean-up.

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They returned to the same spot they’d vacated, but the Queen was no longer next to them. Miro surveyed the ship’s environs, and saw the Moon Queen had joined the aether dancers. Whispers Rain, too, was dancing in the air, graceful swoops while partnered with a fey in the shape of a giant dragonfly. Miro saw Ardent’s eye stray in her direction, and wondered if she was imagining dancing with her. The angle of the heavy, unpleasant chain of obligation on Rain’s soul had changed. By reflex, Miro followed it to see if the holder was present.    

The thick corrupted line led directly to Fallen.

Shadow of Fallen Scent stood before a tall, white-winged centaur, deep in conversation. She had so many ugly strings on souls both present and elsewhere that it was hard to pick out an individual strand. But the centaur’s soul was another one of her victims, and Fallen’s soul was pulling on the string between them, making it vibrate with whatever she was demanding.

Miro looked around the ship’s deck to make note of any other people that Fallen had particularly thick strings upon. There were a few High Court members. It struck Miro how important Ardent must have been to the Etherium, that so much of the Court would attend a party in her honor even after a fourteen-year absence. One individual Miro hadn’t seen at court, a flying merman with the black and white pattern of an orca, stood out for the ugliness of his soul. It was a mottled thing with its good parts choked by solipsism and cruelty. Fallen’s looked worse, but it was more a distinction of scale than kind. No wonder he ended up in her debt.

The aether dance came to a close, the final notes dying away as the musicians finished their piece and did not segue into a new one.

Queen Skein of the Absolute flew along one of the aether currents to a position above the musicians on the raised quarterdeck, and hovered before the drifting streamers that hung from the rear mast’s yards. “My friends, we have come together on this joyous occasion to welcome my faithful servant and former Justiciar Ardent Sojourner back to the Moon Etherium. Ardent, I remember you have always been a great enthusiast for history and immersions. In your honor, I present the latest work from Through the Glass, a historical piece set during the time of Sundering.” A round of enthusiastic applause followed this announcement. Even Miro perked up. Immersions were a relatively new art form, a kind of shared-storytelling game. A fey artist or, more often, a large team of fey artists, would design a scenario and then assign various parts in it to participants. The best immersions were complicated affairs with hundreds of parts, each with their own story arc to explore, each intersecting with the whole. The “immersive” aspect came from a form of glamour that gave each participant a full understanding of their character’s background and motivations. Rules governed each scenario, enforcing artificial limits on fey abilities during the immersion that would make its challenges more real. Many of them involved simulated combat. Nothing that happened would affect the participants in reality, but if one accepted the immersion wholly, it would feel as if it were real.

Miro had always liked immersions. They made participants think about times and situations when problems were a matter of life-and-death, and that lent some perspective to the less dramatic woes of everyday life.

After the applause died down, the Queen continued, “Please welcome Through the Glass’s lead artist, Reflections on Water.”

The white centaur who had been talking to Fallen flew into the air beneath his queen, and spoke after a second, shorter, round of applause. “Your majesty honors myself and my friends with this opportunity. Thank you. This is a special preview of our newest work, The Betrayal, an immersive re-imagining of the events surrounding the Great Sundering. It’s never before been performed, and we hope you will forgive any rough spots in the narrative. With your good will, let us begin.” He lifted a hand, and a half-dozen other fey throughout the crowd did the same. Starlit points scattered from their fingertips to target each member of the audience, assigning each one a unique role.

Ardent broke the starlit spells before they could reach her or Miro. She walked to the caster for their parts instead. The caster was a black-and-red naga woman, who gave her a puzzled look at her approach. “Is something amiss, my lady?”

“Just want to know what parts we’re getting before we start,” Ardent said.

“My lady has the role of Prince Wind Rider, and her servant is to be Prince Loreveroro.” They were both historical figures, warrior-princes of the pre-Sundering age from the Moon and Sun Etheriums respectively. Prince Loreveroro had been one of the two princes of the Sun Host who had gone to Moon Etherium during the ill-fated ninth century Centennial Celebration. He’d died channeling for a Moon Host caster during the Sundering.

“Nope. I don’t think so,” Ardent said, flatly. “The prince doesn’t channel for anyone but me.”

“My lady, I assure you the channeling is simulated, not actual. No harm—”

“No. No simulated channeling. He is mine. I’m not risking any accidents with a never-before-performed leading-edge immersion.” Ardent waved a hand to dismiss the naga’s put-upon and offended look. “Just give me Loreveroro’s part and he can be Wind Rider. I don’t care how cute you all think it is to give our Sun Host channelers the parts of doomed Sun Host channelers. You can make him Wind Rider or we can both sit it out.”

The naga dipped her head. “Yes, my lady.” She cast the spell again, and this time Ardent did not intercept it. As Miro received the spell, he reflexively gestured to adjust the immersion as it would affect him: minimal pain, minimal acceptance of the role so it would not override his personality, and a moderate impact on his senses so that he could still straddle with the real Moon Etherium.

Too late, he realized it wouldn’t work: he had no aether with which to control how deeply he was affected. The spell settled upon him at full intensity, and Mirohirokon was gone.

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Miro kept his features frozen, but he couldn’t stop trembling. It was just a kiss. It’s nothing. It doesn’t matter, he repeated in his head, over and over. Underneath that conscious appeal to reason, panic seethed. And when they make you fuck her, what will you say then? ‘It’s only rape. It doesn’t matter’? Why are we here why are we doing this Divine, Guide, help me. I just want to be safe. He closed his eyes and breathed Ardent in, fought to steady himself. She was still clear, pure, radiant.

And called me a toy.

She has a part to play too. You gave it to her. Don’t complain that she’s doing it.

Divine, what have I done?

Ardent held him protectively against her chest, arm across his collarbone, her fingers stroking the curve of his shoulder. Like a pet. But a beloved pet, one to be protected, cherished. She and her queen were talking, but his mind couldn’t process the words. Fallen took Jinokimijin and strolled away; Miro wasn’t sure where they went.

Abruptly, the twilit world of the glass ship and its celebratory inhabitants vanished around them, replaced by Ardent’s quiet, well-lit apartment. The teleport was so unexpected that Miro staggered. Ardent steadied him, turning him to face her as she went to one knee before him. The collar and leash fell from him to land on the floor with a clatter. He looked at Ardent blankly as she peered up into his face. “Miro, honey, talk to me. How are you holding up?” He tried to recall the last thing that she’d said before the teleport, and realized it had been “I’ll be back in a whisker-twitch.”

“I’m fine,” he said, the lie automatic, mechanical. “Why did we leave?”

“Because I’m worried about you. You’re still shaking.”

Miro raised a hand, watched his fingers tremble in the air. “So I am.”

“Sugar, it’s my party and I gotta go back there. But you don’t have to. You can stay here, where it’s safe. And you can always message me if something comes up.” She laced her strong, blunt fingers through his and clasped his hand, cupping his cheek with her other. “Wanna stay?”

Yes. He fell forward into her arms, knees buckling as she took his full weight with the stability of an anchor. Still kneeling, she cradled him close, one hand stroking his head and neck. He gasped, half a sob. “Mom can’t leave. She’s stuck there. With her.”

“Mom? Wait, you mean Jinokimijin?”

He nodded, chin rubbing against her muscular brown shoulder. “Jinokimijin likes being female too, so got to be Mom as well as Dad. The Sun Queen was useless for either. I have to go back. She’s trapped at Fallen’s side; surely I can manage at yours.”

“It’s not a competition to see who can suffer the most, Miro. I’m sorry. I should’ve stopped her, done something sooner—”

“No, no, you did well. That’s how we’re supposed to play it.” He clung to her. I’m the one failing at my part. Falling apart. Guide, the Path is hard. Please help me. “You did exactly as I wished. Your intervention was timely and well-explained.” Miro meant the words as he said them, and felt steadier for it. More like himself, as if the Guide were setting his feet back on the Path, as if Ardent was a Divine gift to lean upon as he walked it.

“Mph.” She stroked his back, unconvinced.

Reluctantly, he pulled back to look at her face. “We should return, before anyone wonders why you left.”

Ardent snorted. Her grip slackened but she didn’t let him go. “Let em wonder. You sure about this, sugar?”

Miro took a deep breath, held it in, released it. “I am. Thank you.” He touched his fingertips to her jawline, his hand steady again. “For asking. For getting me out for a moment. It helped more than you can know. But we should go back. I want Mom to know she’s not alone.”    

Ardent crinkled her broad nose as she stood again. “All right. But I want us to have a signal, if you need me to get you out of there again. Like this.” She touched her pinky finger to her thumb. “You do this and I’ll know you’re in trouble. And if I have to unchain you again and we get separated, then you message me if you can’t see me or if you’re not sure I can see you. All right?”

He nodded, smiling. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Mph.” She conjured the leash and collar upon him again, and they ported back to the gathering.

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.

April 2019



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