“Let me go in first.” Jinokimijin had teleported them to a golden antechamber, decorated with relief carvings in white marble. “Just to let him know.” Ardent acknowledged with a nod, and the Sun King opened the door.
A woman’s voice inside said, “—the Etherium, you’re delusional. Please lie back down before you fall over.”
“I am not delusional, Ama.” Miro’s voice sounded thready, but she recognized him at once. Ardent’s heart clenched, and suddenly she was glad she hadn’t ported in next to him. I’m not ready for this. “Ardent’s here, I just need a flight spell to…uh…” He sounded confused.
“Good afternoon, Mirohiro,” Jino said, walking in. “What’s the matter?”
“Hello, Dad. Did you bring Ardent with you?”
“He keeps insisting Ardent Sojourner’s in the city.” The woman sounded put upon. “I don’t know how he thinks he’d know.”
Ardent eased the door open and moved into the doorway. It was a Sun Etherium bedroom, bright, cheerful, full of gold and crystal and alabaster decorations. A Sun Host woman was walking away from a rocking chair in pursuit of Miro, while Jino had a hand out to intercept his son.
Miro stopped halfway between the bed and the door, eyes locked on Ardent. “My lady.” He looked like a sickly mortal: too pale, gaunt, eyes sunken. He stepped forward again, half-staggering, but nonetheless evaded the grasp of both Sun fey and approached Ardent. He dropped at her hooves, in a move that mixed kneeling and falling; Miro had to touch the fingers of one hand to the floor to catch his balance. “I – I don’t know what to say, my lady. I’ve wanted to see you for days; you should not have had to come to me. I deceived you and betrayed your trust in me, and I don’t know how to apologize for it. I hated doing it, but I did so intentionally and I would do it again. I crave your forgiveness, but how can I ask for it when I cannot even repent? I…” He trailed off, voice shaky. “I needed to be a better servant to you.”
“Oh, Miro, honey—” Ardent bent to touch his shoulder, then dropped next to him. She curled her legs beneath her and drew him into her arms. “You did not betray me. You did great, honey. You did everything I wanted you to do. I release you. You hear that? You don’t owe me anything. No more vows, no obligations. I release you from them all.”
Miro sagged into her embrace, letting her pull him unresisting into her lap. He whispered, “No, you don’t understand what I’ve done.”
“Well, if you lured me here so you could trap me as your Moon Host channel, ’fraid I already quit Moon again. So it ain’t gonna work out.” Ardent curled him against her chest as he gave a half-chuckle. “You’re still free. I don’t even care if this whole thing is just an act to make me feel sorry for you and let you out of your pledge. I never wanted that Justice-deprived oath anyway.”
“Oh,” the unfamiliar fey woman said. “And I was so confident Miro had to be exaggerating about how kind you were.”
“I’m not that kind.” Ardent crinkled her nose. “Just don’t take advantage of people.” She shot Jino a glare. “Whether they deserve it or not.”
The Sun King wiped tears from his eyes and bowed deeply to her. “Thank you, Lady Ardent.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t do this for you, either.” Ardent kissed the top of Miro’s head, then stood with him in her arms and carried him back to the bed. “Can we talk in some privacy here, or do I need to swear three times that I’m not going to abduct your crown prince first?”
“She’s not going to abduct me,” Miro added as she set him down. He shifted to sit up, and the bed rose at his back to support him at a comfortable angle. “Also, Ardent, I want you to know that for almost the entirety of my life I have been perfectly capable of walking under my own power. Since you seem to have known me exclusively in the small fraction where my mobility has been questionable. Just so you don’t think this is typical.”
Ardent laughed. She perched on the bed beside him and took his hand, twining their fingers together.
“Come, Ama.” Jinokimijin touched the fey woman’s shoulder. “We can leave them in peace for a bit. Farspeak if you need anything, Miro. Lady Ardent, if you would do me the great kindness of letting me know when you leave? Miro should not be left alone while convalescing, and inconveniently forgets this from time to time.”
“All right, Dad. Nice almost-meeting you, Lady Ardent.” Ama gave a little wave. Jino motioned a pair of golem attendants out the door, and then the two Sun fey teleported away.
Now that they were alone, Ardent felt unaccountably nervous. She shifted on the edge of the bed, so that she sat sideways with one leg curled before her, facing him. “I like the lack of teleport blocks in your Sun Palace,” she said, to cover it. “And here I thought Sun Etherium would be more conservative than Moon in all things.”
“It used to be. Dad took the teleport blocks down this week. As long as he’s king anyway, he wants to get rid of some of the pointless, inconvenient traditions so that people will think of change as a good thing. And perhaps give up their own bad habits more easily as well.” Miro smiled a little. “We are not altogether confident of this reasoning, but at the least, less unnecessary walking.”
“Heh.” Ardent lifted her free hand, wanting to touch his face, and then put it down on the bed again instead, not sure if she really knew where they stood. “How are you, Miro?”
His brown eyes brightened, lighting on hers, and he squeezed her hand. “You are here. I could not be better.”
She chuckled. “No, tell me truly, Miro. What did your dad mean by ‘convalescing’? You don’t look exactly healthy. And you’re still depleted. Why don’t you have any aether in you?”
“Aftereffect of too much channeling. My body is rejecting taking aether in again. That’s why I look terrible, as well; trueshifting doesn’t work properly on me right now, either. It’s getting better, actually. I’ve soaked in a little aether since yesterday, enough to cast a glamour or two. Not much, but enough to give me hope I will not always be this crippled. And in any case, I’ll live.” He smiled. “Ardent’s orders.”
“‘Don’t die,’” she quoted, her voice low. “Thank you for not dying, sugar.”
“It was the least I could do,” Miro said, and hesitated.
Ardent caressed his fingers with hers, then moved her hand deliberately to cover her other one against the bed. “So. You and your dad hatched a plot together to use the phoenix rose to depose and exile the worst person in the Sun Etherium. While you were at it, you just happened to take out the worst person in the Moon Etherium, too. Way I see it, you did the Moon Etherium a favor. That happens to be the way every decent person I talked to in the Moon Etherium sees it, and some of the questionable ones, too. Even Skein’s happy.”
Miro smiled. “Is she?”
“Yup. Don’t know that she’s earned it, but maybe she’ll’ve learned a lesson from all this. Anyway. You didn’t tell me you wanted to give the phoenix rose to your dad because you figured I wouldn’t’ve trusted him. Which is, y’know, true enough. Your dad’s reputation didn’t exactly engender trust.”
“He did that on purpose,” Miro said, quietly. “He wanted fey to underestimate him.”
“Sure worked on Fallen.” Ardent shifted on the bed, a slight, stifled movement. He was so close; it made her heart ache not to hold him. “Point is, you were right to think your dad could be trusted with the phoenix rose. He did let it go. And you were right to think I would not have trusted him, or helped you get it to him. I’m all in favor of Truth, but he’s not my highest Ideal. Justice is, I guess. You probably noticed me messing with poor Truth quite a bit while we were in the Moon Etherium. I got no cause to complain that you did, too. You made the right decision.”
“Thank you.” But Miro’s brown eyes remained troubled. “If you think we chose correctly, why are you angry at my father?”
“I think you chose correctly. Your father’s a monster who almost got you killed.”
“I am a grown man, Ardent. My father did not coerce me into any of this. It was my idea to find a former Moon Etherium barbarian to escort me in and use me as a channel, in fact. And that it be me, specifically, because I was High Court and would be a more powerful channel than my father. We did discuss inverting the roles – myself making the bargain with Fallen, my father going to find you, or another barbarian enemy of Fallen’s. But it would not have worked. My talents were better suited to opposing Fallen, and Dad’s better suited to handling her.” Miro raised a hand to cup her cheek. “To be honest, I had by far the better end of this situation.”
She tilted her head into his fingers. “I bet you’re a lot more fun than your dad is,” she murmured, then fought to clear her head and ask the things she needed to know. “So how much of this whole thing did you plan? You knew all along about the phoenix rose, right?”
Miro lowered his eyes, indigo lashes shadowing his gaunt cheeks. “In essence, yes. Dad has been researching unusual forms and applications of aether for forty years or so, with an eye towards deposing the former Sun Queen. I started to assist in his research when I was thirteen or fourteen, but he did not explain the reason for his interest until I was almost thirty. Strictly speaking, he did not tell me ‘Shadow of Fallen Scent has already found the phoenix rose you and I were looking for, so we need to enact a contingency plan’. But only because he wanted me to be able to tell you truthfully that I didn’t know it was a phoenix rose he’d been trying to get to. So I wasn’t certain. But based on the circumstances, I suspected that’s what had happened. Fallen discovered the plant-nest, took the bird, and did not take the root, which Dad knew she’d need later. So we waited in the area until she came back for it, and then we staged the whole false-race affair. So she would take Dad. Then I went back to the Sun Etherium to pretend I was exhausting my resources there in a desperate effort to free him. And then to you. In fairness, my desperation was quite genuine.”
“And you had to go back to the Sun Etherium because…?”
“Verisimilitude. If I’d come first to you, you would have wondered why I was so well-prepared with a plan to cover an event I’d supposedly been unable to anticipate. We’d made a list of eleven former Moon Host barbarians who might be able to help. One of the others was even in Try Again. So the plan didn’t depend on you specifically agreeing. But you were at the top of the list. Especially after I saw you.” He smiled at her then, and the look of adoration in his eyes made her forget everything else for a moment. “Anyway, when I told you ‘no one in the Sun Etherium will help me get him back’, that was true. But mostly because our allies would be needed in position in the Sun Etherium upon Dad’s return. I don’t think anyone but I and perhaps Ama knew he planned a coup. But Dad had a lot of sympathizers in his distaste for Mother and her laws. So I spread the word that something big was coming and they should be positioned to provide support and keep the general populace calm. A propaganda war, as it were.”
“Heh.” Ardent shook her head. “So your dad didn’t intentionally let Fallen get the phoenix rose first, did he? That wasn’t a deliberate gamble to get him a Moon High Court channel as well as the phoenix rose?”
Miro hesitated. “I…am certain it was not. That is to say, yes, we’d been aware for decades that Fallen was also researching the same subject. When we discussed contingency plans should Fallen find the phoenix rose before us, we were aware that this contingency had certain advantages. First that Dad would have a channel to draw on when he returned to the Sun Etherium, and second that the Sun Etherium itself would likely be weakened. However, the phoenix rose alone would have sufficed. Fallen and the low sun aether were lagniappes, but there were far too many risks and variables to this plan. If Dad had found the bird first, he would have claimed it.”
She eyed him. “You say you’re certain, sugar, and yet it sounds like there’s a ‘but’ in there.”
Miro sighed. “Dad did kind of pick Fallen to be our rival in the Moon Etherium.”
“What? How do you ‘kind of pick’ a rival?”
“There have always been other researchers in this field. Dad had some tidbits about the possibilities make their way to Shadow of Fallen Scent decades ago, to gain her interest. He figured she would drive out the competition in the Moon Etherium, because she was very good at social and political manipulation. But she was neither a good researcher nor experimenter, so she would not be a truly dangerous rival herself. And she had many enemies; no one liked her. So if she did pose a threat, it’d be easy to recruit allies against her.”
“That’s…seriously twisty reasoning.”
“I did mention the part where Dad cultivated the image of incompetence for forty years so he’d be underestimated, right? He’s had a long time to work on this plan. And phoenix roses are only born when the Old World and the fey shard intersect. We always knew our first chance at it would be this season.” Miro smiled. “And granted, we very nearly failed at the end. But we did not.”
You almost died at the end. “And now you’re crown prince, instead of ninth-to-eleventh favorite.”
“And Dad’s king.” Miro rubbed the back of his neck. “After the way we manipulated you, I imagine we deserve no less than for you to think that power was our motive.”
Ardent looked away. “No. If power’d been your motive, you’d’ve kept the phoenix rose. Unless it dies after two weeks in captivity or something, and you just didn’t tell me.”
“No. He could have kept it. Fallen’s notes would tell you as much, I imagine, if you do not trust ours.”
“I trust you.” Ardent took a deep breath. “Maybe I shouldn’t. But I do. So! You said earlier that I didn’t understand what you’d done. Any other details you want to fill me in on that I missed?”
Miro rested against the angled mattress, thinking. “I believe we covered everything I’ve lied to you about. Am I still forgiven?” He watched her, eyes earnest and worried.
“Yeah, you are. So you and your dad didn’t discuss how you ought to bed your Moon Etherium native to ensure her goodwill?”
Miro laughed and shook his head. “No, and if we had discussed it, it would have been ‘on no account should you risk your host’s goodwill by attempting to bed her’.”
“Not even if she’s throwing herself at you in the most pathetic way imaginable?”
“That is not how I remember events at all.” Miro circled a hand behind her neck, fingers curling against tightly-kinked hair. He drew himself forward and kissed her. She leaned into him, wanting this to be real, to be true, even if nothing else had been. He broke off after a moment, breathing heavily, and touched his forehead to hers, under her horns. “Ardent, my beautiful lady Ardent,” he whispered. “I have done nothing to deserve anything at all of you, least of all this. But if you are asking if my interest in you was feigned: no. Rather, it was understated. I have never wanted anyone as much as I desire you, never known anyone so worthy of admiration, of love. I can ask nothing of you, not after all that I’ve taken already. But if I could ask one thing, it would be the opportunity to see you again, and again. To become someone worthy of your love, and thereby perhaps to gain it.”
Ardent shifted position to lie beside him and gathered him into her arms., She ran one hand down the length of his body and clung to him with a breathless half-laugh. “Miro, I don’t know if your opinion of me is too high or of yourself is too low or both, but you’ve definitely got something out of whack there. Also, I don’t care which it is. Also also, I love you, and you can see as much of me as you like. And I didn’t mean that as innuendo but it works either way.”
Miro pulled his head back to look in her eyes, astonished. “And you say I am mad,” he said, then kissed her.
“You are.” She kissed his lips in return, then his cheek, jaw, throat. “Wonderfully, lovably, utterly mad.” Ardent shifted to straddle him as he ran his hands up her soft-furred thighs and lifted the hem of her chiton. She kissed him again, then sat back on his thighs, her hands on his chest. “You’re probably too sick for actual lovemaking still, aren’t you?”
“Probably,” Miro admitted. “I am open to making the attempt anyway, or to cuddling instead, as my lady prefers.” Ardent shifted to snuggle in against him, pillowing her head against his chest. He dipped his head to rest his face against her hair. “I have missed you so much, my lady. I was sure you’d be furious with me. Are you quite sure you’re not furious?”
“Pretty sure. I was furious when your dad first disappeared with you, but mostly because I thought you’d tricked me into helping with some plot to use Fallen as a channel and sabotage the Moon Etherium. Once it was obvious what you’d really done, I didn’t mind so much. Also, it was hard to stay angry when I was afraid you might be dead.” Ardent nuzzled her cheek against his chest and pushed his robe open to caress his far side. “Love, but I am glad you’re alive.”
Miro stroked her curly hair, traced the curve of one caprine ear. “Me too. Sorry, but, earlier – did you truly say you loved me?”
Ardent giggled. “Yes. I love you. In case you needed to hear it again.”
“Oh. It just seems so improbable. I am having a difficult time crediting it. You’ve only known me a handful of days, and you seem to have such excellent judgment otherwise—”
Ardent laughed and thumped his chest playfully. “You haven’t known me any longer than I’ve known you, and you said you loved me first. Well, strongly implied that you loved me, anyway.”
“I love you,” Miro said at once. “But it’s different for me! I can see your soul.”
“What difference does that make?” She turned her head to rest her chin on folded hands and look up at him.
He smiled, slow and sensual and sweet, and Ardent almost forgot her resolve not to exhaust him with an attempt at lovemaking. “Because your soul is amazing, Ardent. You have the most astonishing, beautiful, pure soul I have ever seen.”
Ardent raised her eyebrows, giving him a skeptical look. “Pure? Me? Hon, I think your soulsight’s busted.”
He laughed and bent for a kiss. “That is the trouble with being the only person I know with this talent. I can hardly verify it with anyone else. Only my own experience. Which has born out my impression of your soul, in every particular.”
“Uh. You were paying attention to all those times I lied back in the Moon Etherium, right? Deceived my own queen because I didn’t want her to have the phoenix rose? Let my ex-wife believe I’d come back for good so she’d drop by and fool around with me? Almost killed you? I’m no paragon, sweetie.”
“I know. Life does not admit paragons.” He hugged her, pressed his lips to her shoulder. “You did what you thought was right, not what was most convenient or would make your life easiest. If you’d done that, you would never have taken me to the Moon Etherium. You are the most wonderful person I have ever met, and from the first moment I saw you I have wanted nothing more than to remain by your side forever. Is it too soon to ask you to marry me? It’s too soon, isn’t it. I should give you a chance to come to your senses first.”
She curled a hand behind his head and giggled. “It’s too soon. You should wait until at least, I don’t know. Dinner time?”
“I had dinner before you arrived,” Miro said. “Oh, wait, you mean dinner tomorrow. Very well, I shall ask then.”
“Is it that late already? Today kinda got away from me.” Ardent stifled a yawn. “At least you didn’t. Mmm.” She set her head against his chest again, rotating an ear down to listen to his heartbeat, slow and steady. “Is it all right if I sleep here with you? You wanna farspeak your dad that I’m staying? Wait, can you farspeak your dad?”
“I would be extremely disappointed if you did not sleep here with me, and yes, I can message him. With the same farspeaker enchantment you made for me. I am growing quite accustomed to a lack of magic. In case you feared I could not adapt to a barbarian lifestyle.”
“Hah. Guess we can figure that one out at dinner time tomorrow, too.” I should probably eat something before I go to sleep, Ardent thought. She used a flicker of aether to change her chiton to a nightgown and get rid of her underwear, and then drifted off to sleep anyway.
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